APPLETON — Several housing-related nonprofit groups in the Fox Cities want to convert a private country club in the heart of the city into a community-based market garden and public green space.
Leaders from the organizations told The Post-Crescent on Wednesday that Appleton-based COTS, Community Outreach Temporary Services, will close a $2.6 million deal today to purchase the Riverview Country Club — a site that is more than a century old and most recently was targeted for private development of multifamily housing.
About $1.6 million was raised through private donations with the rest from a $1 million loan through Community First Credit Union, said John Schmidt, president of the board of directors for COTS, an Appleton nonprofit group that provides temporary transitional shelter and self-sufficiency training to homeless people in Outagamie, Winnebago and Calumet counties. Schmidt hopes the loan will be repaid through community contributions.
"I think this is a great social innovation project," said Schmidt, who also is president and chief executive officer of Kimberly-based U.S. Venture. "The idea we've come up with here fits with our mission to enhance and provide financial stability, not just to COTS, but the entire continuum of care."
The objective is to create a self-sustaining operation, rebranded as Riverview Gardens, which also will preserve open green space and establish land where vegetables can be grown year-round in greenhouses. The space would be open to the public and feature nature trails, as well as connect to existing bike trails.
Food grown onsite would be made available to those in need and sold at a discount to low-income individuals. Excess food would be sold at local farmers markets with revenues going to support Riverview Gardens, COTS and up to 60 other housing and community organizations.
Schmidt said as many as 10, 20-by-100-foot greenhouses could be built next year, with a goal of having up to 40 within the next four to five years.
The gardens would offer job training to individuals who utilize various community services, from halfway houses to homeless shelters, Schmidt said. Some of the training would include lawn care, landscaping and garden management, as well as work force management.
Trainees would be managed by a full-time professional staff member and work within a recently launched program by COTS called ServiceWorks Inc., which focuses on organic food production and property management.
Job training options appealed to Cindy Sahotsky, COTS executive director, and other service group leaders.
"It really would benefit those people who need work history and need to learn how to be productive," she said.
Sahotsky said additional job training could lead to better jobs for those who utilize community services.
"One of the things that tends to happen is a lot of our clients end up with temporary employment and they get into situations where they end up being put back at risk," she said. "This addresses what it would take to get them out of that situation."
With a coalition behind the project, it creates a group effort toward addressing issues such as work force training and helping more people become independent, said Joe Wilz, executive director of Ryan Community Inc., a nonprofit Appleton assisted living facility.
"These issues aren't just someone else's problem to deal with; they are community problems," Wilz said. "Now, the community truly has leadership to address these issues."
Lisa Schneider, executive director of the Housing Partnership of the Fox Cities, said increased access to healthier food would be a major benefit.
"With the nutritional aspect, we can offer some educational programs and teach people how to better prepare healthier foods," she said.
Schmidt said numbers are preliminary, but Riverview Gardens, in full operation, could employ between 50 and 100 people. It's also projected that up to 60 people could be trained annually.
"Riverview Gardens is a new approach to reach more people," he said.
Riverview's clubhouse presents the biggest financial challenge for the initiative, Schmidt said, but it also could yield financial benefits.
Possibilities for the clubhouse include establishing a partnership with an existing restaurant, which would take over the facility and then offer an outlet to provide more job training for the restaurant and hospitality industry. There also may be an option to work with the culinary arts program at Fox Valley Technical College.
"It represents a significant piece of the property, but we have not ironed out what we will do with it," Schmidt said. "Our analysis has shown the clubhouse is a major source of overhead that we cannot carry for long without it creating an impact on us."
Organizers of the Riverview Gardens proposal have worked feverishly, yet quietly, on the project since September, Schmidt said. In that time, most of the money was raised to take over the purchase contract from B&H Properties.
Schmidt said meetings with neighbors, drawing as many as 50 people, were held to share details about the garden proposal.
"We wouldn't have done this if it would have been a contentious issue," he said.
Most responded favorably, Schmidt said. About $150,000 of the $1.6 million raised for the initiative was donated by those who live in the surrounding neighborhood, he said.
"All of the people around the golf course are aware of this," Schmidt said.
Riverview Country Club accepted an offer from B&H for $2.6 million on July 12. That sale, set to close in October, was delayed to give the COTS-led group time to raise the money to take over the deal, Schmidt said.
Some of the country club's neighbors were unhappy about B&H's original housing development proposal. The private country club, founded in 1898, is across the Oneida Street Bridge from downtown Appleton. Riverview gives its overall size as 77 acres, while city records list it at 72.28 acres.
Schmidt said Appleton city officials are aware of the Riverview Gardens proposal. Once COTS takes over the country club, the site will receive non-profit status, meaning most of it will be removed from city tax rolls.
Riverview's 2011 tax bill was $46,553.01, according to Outagamie County records. Schmidt said financial arrangements still are being worked out regarding how to replace the lost tax revenues. Owners of some tax-exempt properties make payments in lieu of taxes.
Schmidt said much work still needs to be done, but he is optimistic.
"Social innovation implies risk," he said. "This is something new. It's a project that hasn't been done before."
HOW TO HELP
Donations for the Riverview Gardens project can be made through COTS. Contributions for the initiative should be designated to COTS Riverview Garden Fund. For more information call 920.843.7269