REPUBLIC -- The old Republic Enterprise Center in Fayette County shows signs of its eclectic past: office equipment to be auctioned off, liners that were designed to hold explosives, empty cheesecake boxes.
But by this time next year, the former IGA distribution center built in the middle of the last century could be turning crops that could have gone to waste into profitable products.
Using funds cobbled together from various sources -- including federal and state grants as well as money from a Pittsburgh foundation -- the strategy is to turn the 50,000-plus-square-foot building into a regional center that would be a linchpin in re-establishing a local food chain.
"The potential with the room in this building is unlimited," said Ken Navoney, who started work in early May as general manager of what's going to be called the Republic Food Enterprise Center. He already is busy taking bids on construction work to turn the place into a facility that can properly process and package food, perhaps turning slightly blemished tomatoes into salsa or less-than-perfect peaches into jams.
A business plan backed by the Fayette County Community Action Agency estimates there are more than 14,000 farms within a two-hour drive, representing more than 1.9 million acres of agricultural land and, in 2007, more than $500 million in products that went to market.
But, according to the plan prepared by private equity partnership Hollymead Capital, the region's growers may be losing $300 million or more in wasted and spoiled crops. Produce that isn't perfect -- but is still perfectly good -- can be particularly hard to sell.
"By targeting the lost production, [the center] will be processing local organic materials into shelf-stable products at a competitive cost to imported products," the plan states.
In fact, growing consumer interest in locally grown or produced food may open up a second chance for both the farmers' seconds and for this aging building. "The demand is there," said Bob Bakos, director of planning and development of the community action agency.
If Mr. Navoney can get the french drains installed, create a cold room for handling vegetables and check off dozens of other improvements on his list, the center could help build sales for local farmers; give consumers access to healthy, local foods; and create jobs. The project is committed to having about 40 workers on board within three years or so, with 30 of the jobs filled by low-income local residents.
For all that to happen, the Republic center would have to succeed in becoming a sustainable business operation.
The Fayette County Community Action Agency has been trying to find the right use for the building for at least a decade. The first idea was to create a business incubator, said James M. Stark, CEO of the nonprofit based in Uniontown.
That's when the bag assembly operation moved in with its workers assembling liners to be filled elsewhere with explosives, a process that earned the warehouse the nickname of the "bags for bombs" plant among the neighbors. That work continues, but the agency hopes to find another space for the operation.
A few years later, the agency installed a commercial kitchen in part of the building. Small entrepreneurs rented the facility, using equipment like an industrial size cooker and mixer to make items such as cookies or tomato soup for sale. At the peak, four or five small businesses used the kitchen. "It never produced the volume we needed to sustain the operation," said Mr. Stark.
For the past two years, the kitchen had been used by Unforgettable Sweets, a company created by former Steelers linebacker Robin Cole that made cheesecakes using the three walk-in ovens. Although production stopped a few months back, there are still stacks of empty boxes in the building awaiting Alpaccino Cappuccino and Sweet Potato cheesecakes.
The new facility, modeled in part on local food processing operations in other states, is meant to be responsive to farmers and entrepreneurs' needs.
That could mean eventually developing private label brands recognizable in the region, but also being ready for the farmer interested in turning his seconds into apple butter or helping a grocery store find a source for local onions or zucchini. "We could buy your product and either resell it or process it," said Mr. Stark.
Beyond the physical overhaul of the space, they've got a lot of outreach work to do.
Fayette County farmers, at least, tend to be focused on commodity products, particularly the kind of corn that can be fed to farm animals or turned into ethanol. The operators of the Republic Food Enterprise Center will need to persuade growers to take a chance on other products.
A 2011 Carnegie Mellon University paper on developing an integrated regional food enterprise system for local food producers found that restaurants and some retailers were very interested in buying goods locally. If the Republic center can find out what is in demand before the farmers buy seed in January, the staff could communicate that to the growers and line up the needed product.
None of this will happen for before next year's growing season. They've pretty much missed this year's cycle, although they might be able to pick up some projects this summer or fall.
Projections call for the center to produce revenues of about $3 million within three years or so. Around that time, the center is also supposed to become an employee-and-producer co-operative.
Teresa F. Lindeman: email@example.com or 412-263-2018. First Published June 17, 2012 4:00 AM