by Alissa Marchat/staff writer
In early August, McKee Foods Corp. awarded the Casper (Wyoming) Downtown Development Authority (DDA) a grant to help move the Casper downtown public plaza forward. The grant is part of a McKee Foods initiative called OH!—the Outdoor Happiness movement. McKee Foods is working with every state in the country to discover how each person can find their own Outdoor Happiness, the company says. It will contribute to 50 projects in 50 states over a five-year period, providing $1 million-plus to the cause.
“We’ve been working with people in various communities to identify needs and select where we can be of greatest value. The project in Casper is an example of our commitment to this cause,” said Chris McKee, EVP of marketing and sales at McKee Foods. “Getting people outside and happy is what the OH!—the Outdoor Happiness movement is all about.”
According to Kevin Hawley, DDA executive director, “A common sight will be smiling children laughing and playing while exploring the many features and amenities, including a free splash park. Other common sights will include engaged families enjoying quality time together during one of the many free movie nights hosted in the plaza or during an outdoor skating experience in the winter season. Additional activities will include concerts, festivals, farmer’s markets, fundraisers and other family-friendly community events. Casper is a community that has been made great not by our wondrous surroundings or natural resources but by the people who live here. David Street Station is a hub for Casper, a place where we can come together with our friends, neighbors, family and even strangers to celebrate our amazing community.”
DDA Board Chairman Brandon Daigle said, “This grant is another step in the right direction as we work to bring David Street Station online by this time next year. It still hasn’t sunk in that McKee Foods, a company that does international business and is located 1,500 miles away, recognizes the benefits of this project and believes in our community to this level; it’s just amazing. The board, staff and community supporters of David Street Station are honored and humbled to have been selected as the recipient for the state of Wyoming and will make McKee Foods proud.”
McKee Foods, a family bakery with annual sales of about $1.4 billion, is a privately held company based in Collegedale, Tennessee. It makes Little Debbie snack cakes.
A grocery store could be coming to downtown Cheyenne
The Cheyenne DDA’s Economic Restructuring Committee is looking into the possibility of a grocery store in downtown Cheyenne, KGWN reports. Desiree Brothe of the DDA says the planning is in its early stages, and the store is still two or three years out. However, the committee will be looking at possible locations. Brothe says there are several factors that have to be taken into account, including parking.
The plan is to look into opening a grocery/co-op. However, the committee is looking for input from the public. As of press time in late September, a public survey was available online at downtowncheyenne.com. The committee also held an input session on Sept. 27.
“We’ve had several people come up to us after this particular session saying ‘hey, I know about this’ or ‘I have this.’ Or ‘you could try this,’” Brothe said, “Those are things that, you know, even with a committee of 11 people we can’t think of everything.”
When asked if they would prefer a traditional grocery store or a co-op, the crowd overwhelmingly chose a co-op.
The committee already has been researching grocery/co-ops in surrounding areas, including in Pine Bluffs and Laramie.
“There’s no reason this can’t happen, I think,” Brothe said. “Provided you have all the right people willing to do the work to see the project through, it can certainly happen.”
Local food trend takes Wyoming by storm
The local food movement is burgeoning in the Equality State, says the Wyoming Business Council, the state’s economic development agency. Consumers’ desire to know the origin of their food has created opportunities for purveyors of local food. Wyoming farmers’ markets alone generate more than $506,730 in annual sales.
Traditionally, farmers’ markets scattered statewide have been the best way for buyers to know produce was grown locally. The system has swelled to more than 50 weekly events. Today, few towns lack a weekly summer market nearby, and some areas have several options.
“The local food movement has been growing around the country for the past several years, but most people tend to think of it in the big cities,” Mary Lou Chapman, president of the Rocky Mountain Food Industry Association, told The Shelby Report. “Wyomingites have found ways to embrace the movement as well. In some ways it makes even more sense for a state like Wyoming that is so known for its expansiveness, with communities often spread long distances from each other. The state’s economic development agency, the Wyoming Business Council, has been helping the various businesses with grants and assistance.”
Some of that assistance has come in the form of $1.6 million in grants to the city of Powell to help build a mill and warehouse for Gluten Free Oats, an agricultural manufacturer that ships internationally to places like Australia, the United Kingdom and South America, in addition to wholesalers in the U.S. An estimated $1.6 million will be returned to the community for future economic development.
“Companies like Gluten Free Oats introduce Wyoming food and products to the rest of the world,” said Leah Bruscino, Business Council director of field operations and Northwest regional director. “That’s new money coming into our state’s economy. Those exports also represent a new revenue stream for local businesses.”
“People are more conscious of healthy eating habits than ever before,” said Lisa Johnson, agribusiness director at the Business Council. “Eating local is part of that. Consumers know where and how food was raised, and they develop a relationship with the farmer.”
Nowhere is that connection between grower and community more evident than in Jackson Hole, where Vertical Harvest, a three-story hydroponic greenhouse occupying 13,500 s.f. of space, opened earlier this year (photos below). The Business Council supported the project, which is a low-profit limited liability company (L3C), with a $1.5 million grant to the town of Jackson.
Founders Nona Yehia and Penny McBride have said the operation will produce 20 varieties of fresh food year-round in one of the harshest climates, and highest elevations, in Wyoming. With a tenth of an acre of growing space for tomatoes, basil and salad greens, among others, the greenhouse can produce the equivalent of five acres of traditional agriculture while using 90 percent less water. Additional benefits include the elimination of agricultural runoff and chemical pesticides, says the company.
As a low-profit company, Vertical Harvest’s close ties with the Jackson Hole community are essential. The company has a dedicated central public atrium that is physically separated by glass walls from the major growing areas in the building to encourage visitors to visually experience the greenhouse without risk of contaminating the crops. On the ground floor, Vertical Harvest has a small “living classroom” where it can grow a limited amount of specialty crops, while at the same time incorporating educational initiatives, according to the company’s website.
Additionally, a first-floor market sells produce, local crafts and art, although most of the produce already is spoken for by local restaurants like Snake River Grill and Café Genevieve, along with grocery stores like Aspens Market and Jackson Whole Grocer and Café, the Business Council says.
Vertical Harvest also is giving back to the community through an employment program for those with intellectual and physical disabilities. Of the company’s 20 employees, 15 are part of the program.
With a vision to “cultivate an empowered, healthy, sustainable and connected community,” Vertical Harvest says it will not compete with local growers. Instead, it will compete with imported produce from large-scale distributors whose supply is from distant states. This means Vertical Harvest will make existing Wyoming businesses, as local customers, stronger because they won’t have to pay costly up charges for transportation, says the company.
Vertical Harvest hopes that by highlighting the importance of local food sources, it will bring increased attention to all Jackson Hole businesses providing fresh produce to the community.
*Editor’s note: This Wyoming Market Profile also appears in the November 2016 print edition of The Shelby Report of the West.