Milwaukee’s Visionaries Face Skeptics in the News

April 30, 2012 § 4 Comments

Last year, we introduced you to Sweet Water Organics, a hybrid company (read: for-profit and non-profit) that is trying to develop a viable urban farm using aquaponics. They’re one of the first aquaponic farms in the country, drawing inspiration from operations like Growing Power. Recently, Tom Daykin of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran an article  about Sweet Water that reads like a bullet-point list of charges against the company.

The article’s focus is a $250,000 loan Sweet Water received from the City last spring, and its allegations against Sweet Water include a failure to pay its employees on time and to generate the hiring numbers that were tied to the loan.  The angle the article takes comes down to a very basic question: “whether city tax dollars should have been given to Sweet Water, a start-up firm that has drawn national praise as part of the sustainable farming movement.” Ultimately, the answer Tom Daykin arrives at is a flat-out “no.”

Daykin attempts to link the confirmation bias of aldermen and City Council members to their approval of Sweet Water’s loan. He does this artfully, suggesting the entire movement is at once naive and corrupt:

“Sweet Water deserves city financing because of its role in growing Milwaukee’s urban agriculture industry, which means more jobs, environmental benefits and a more secure food supply,” said Ald. Tony Zielinski, who sponsored the legislation to provide the loan.

Zielinski said he hadn’t known about the employees who had left the company last year because of unpaid wages. But even if he had known, Zielinski said, he still would have supported the loan request.

The thrust here is to equivocate government spending with government waste, and, oh yeah, to remind us that green initiatives are stupid. It brings to mind every conservative pundit who talks about Solyndra as if it’s this unlimited source of “I told you so” about green initiatives. Except Daykin isn’t writing an opinion piece, so he needs to slide these premises into a news article in the form of “facts,” some of which are debatable, others simply contradictory.

For example, as Daykin explains the process leading up to Sweet Water’s loan from the city, he describes the reaction from Milwaukee development department analyst Yves LaPierre: “LaPierre also said Sweet Water was proposing to spend most of the funds on its operations. He said similar city development loans usually financed capital investments, such as new buildings.”  This would seem to suggest that Sweet Water had benefited from preferential treatment in the vetting process, and yet indeed, if you scan the line items for Sweet Water’s loan proposal, virtually every item is for exactly that: capital investment, ranging from “acquisition of tractors for production” to “construction of climate-controlled vegetable sprout production room” to “7 covered specialized greenhouses.”

Not salaries, as Daykin suggests.

To be fair, it’s not that Daykin lied: perhaps the original loan proposals sought to cover operating costs. But those weren’t the ones the city approved. And he leaves the reader thinking the city approved this totally unprecedented loan because of its naive or corrupt (or both) aldermen, singling out Tony Zielinski:

“This is a slam dunk,” Zielinski said then. “These people are visionaries. They’re coming to the city for help, and I think we should help them. I just don’t understand anybody who could disagree with that.”

We can acknowledge the possibility that Sweet Water failed to meet a particular timeline, or even the possibility that it will fail as a business in the future–for don’t all businesses run this risk? We can even acknowledge the possibility that the Common Council made a hasty decision to approve their loan. But we refuse to judge Sweet Water or the broader movement toward sustainable cities simply on the basis of what’s possible. On the other hand, Tom Daykin’s and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s rush to judgement speaks volumes about its eagerness for this movement to fail.

Down to the Root

In a letter to the editor, Jon Bales of the Urban Aquaculture Center came to Sweet Water’s defense:

Could it be that aquaponics is a great idea whose time has not yet arrived?

Sweet Water Organics Inc. may have trouble providing as many full-time jobs as projected when it received a city loan. Nevertheless, we owe Sweet Water gratitude for pioneering this industry in Milwaukee and encouraging other start-ups.

It is through trial and error that the efficiencies needed for aquaponics to be financially sustainable will be uncovered. Thank you, Sweet Water, and thanks, Milwaukee, for allowing the experiment.

Jon Bales
Urban Aquaculture Center
Milwaukee

As far as I’m concerned, Bales hits the nail on the head. Cities like Milwaukee are in a precarious position: some people believe former industrial centers (Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cleveland, etc.) are never going to bounce back from the recession, and instead will continue to decline even after cities like New York and San Francisco have economically recovered. The fundamental premise of this blog and the movement it belongs to is that not only will our cities bounce back, but they will solve the problems other cities will never slow down enough to fully consider. Problems like a food system that kills the planet; problems like a population disconnected from their work, their neighbors, their food, and their democracy.

But the cities poised to make a change have to recognize this and embrace the risks involved in jump-starting brand new initiatives, industries and ideas. Sweet Water is a great example of that. They are visionaries of this movement and they are on the ground making it happen. They are taking the problem of an enormously unsustainable food system and building an industry out of the solution; and all of this within an abandoned warehouse! They utilize volunteer labor (of which I’ve gladly been part), a horizontal system of governance, and a nonprofit structure to help educate their locale about the wonders of a science they’re helping innovate. That’s the recovery I want to live in.

There are necessarily going to be missteps along the way. And Tom Daykin’s skepticism about Sweet Water could be useful if it approached its allegations of exploitation of taxpayer dollars and unaccountability in City politics from a more constructive perspective (and if it weren’t so curmudgeonly). If indeed there was wrongdoing, then those responsible will be held responsible.  But none of this means that Milwaukee (or the Midwest generally) has no need for creative solutions to its enormous problems.  Sweet Water’s work is still part of that solution. A wholesale indictment of Sweet Water and its supporters on the Common Council from the largest newspaper in southeastern Wisconsin is not going to make Milwaukee any healthier or more sustainable.

To illustrate the depth of positivity and vision emanating from the Sweet Water folks, I asked James Godsil, co-founder of Sweet Water Organics, to write a piece for MSCS about his vision for Milwaukee. Happily, he replied with this.

The point is that Milwaukee has the ingredients to completely reshape the way cities eat, work, and thrive in the 21st century. There are people here who understand the task before them and who are elated that it has fallen at their feet. We’re passionate, dedicated, and hard-working enough to make these things happen.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has no idea what folks like Godsil are even talking about, and it unfortunately sees the world through an extremely myopic lens where the futures of both the city and the planet have nothing to do with the innovations going on right under their noses. The MSCS wishes them good luck. They’re going to need it.

Peter Murphy, Co-Founder

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§ 4 Responses to Milwaukee’s Visionaries Face Skeptics in the News

  • Bay View Resident says:

    I agree with you regarding Tom Daykin’s lazy reporting; it is his MO. But there is something about SW that makes residents a bit wary. By aligning themselves with local politicians and allowing themselves to be co-opted for political campaigns there very existence is tainted by the political.

    I do think we (the royal taxpayer we) should support them. But because the entire process was conducted by an Alderman who has a reputation for backdoor dealings in a not-so-public manner; SW’s reputation has been sullied.

    The cliche is often true- we are judged by the company we keep. I would like to see SW declare themselves politically un-aligned, stop posing for promotional campaign materials for elected officials, and keep a public blog/diary informing folks of when/where/how they are requesting public funding.

    Sincerely, good luck to them. As mentioned in the above commentary, no great idea ever emerges from the egg fully formed. I hope that the SW folks take from this experience a real message; that accountability takes many forms. And taking a forward approach to communications will build more trust and support in the community.

  • Angie Schmitt says:

    I think the paper is right to be skeptical. The paper’s job is to protect the public trust when it comes to public expenditures. If this organization did not live up to its promises, it should be held accountable, it seems to me. I think there is great potential for abuse. I’m not saying this particular organization was abusive. But this kind of private investment by the public should be heavily scrutinized, if it should occur at all, IMO.

  • Jesse says:

    Wow. This is exactly what so many people were expecting… a counter article composed by an ill-informed supporter of SWO, which ignores the facts (unless they point to SW’s favor), and fixates on sap, supportive (biased) statements, and hype.

    Let’s turn on a light or two, shall we?
    In April 2011, SWO President & Owner, Josh Fraundorf, went before the Milwaukee City Council and purposefully left out crucial facts regarding SWO being $hundreds of thousands in debt, over $20,000 behind on utility payments, and over $12,500 behind on back wages (not including the $thousands owed to individuals who settled for less than what they were owed or who simply gave up pursuing the matter). Josh was only able to state that SWO had “4 employees” at the City Council hearing b/c so many employees had left just shortly before due to inept management practices, a frightening disregard for the environment, and again, being owed several thousand $ in back pay.
    Alderman Tony (not Tom, as stated in the above article) Zielinski pushed the loan through w/o even the slightest attempt at due diligence in finding out what Josh WASN’T saying before getting SWO a quarter of a million in tax dollars.

    At least half the jobs that were ‘created’ by SWO are held by the owners and employees who were “re-hired” at less than they were making prior to the loan.
    Tell me the truth now, Peter… Do you believe that Josh did not need to put the information above out there for the Council members and taxpayers (many of whom now refer to themselves as “forced investors”), or that the city should not have found out the truth before giving SWO tax money?
    Let’s put the question this way… If this were any business other than SWO, would you be pushing this smokescreen?

    People deserve solid answers -not more sap, smoke & mirror ‘news’, and green washed fluff. Daykin’s article was based on verifiable city video, interviews, and printed documents… what’s this one based on?

  • Jesse says:

    One more thing:
    Equating the success of SWO with the success of Milwaukee (or any other city), and especially urban farming as a whole displays a disturbing level of ignorance and arrogance. There are too many people/ groups doing good things in Milwaukee who wouldn’t have to deal in lies and half-truths to qualify for city money -and they could create real LIVING WAGE (not minimum wage) jobs to boot.

    I agree that there is a need to focus on the unsustainable nature of our food system as well as the environmental toll it takes on our water & land. That’s why all of the former employees of SWO worked hard and endured several periods without pay during our employment there. We put in so much of our time and savings, and accessed our personal connections to help put SWO on the map because we believed in the supposed mission.

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