It's not every day that a former prison work camp is given new life as a place to grow food. But that’s exactly what’s happening in Peoria, Ill., where Hanna City, the shuttered facility that was also once a home for delinquent boys and a 1950s Air Force radar base, is being reborn as a food hub and farm incubator site.
The 40-acre patch of land is growing on local sustainability supporters, who believe it could be easily transformed into a farm training center and production location, helping to boost the local economy and supply food to the region’s vast food deserts.
Closed in 2002 for budgetary reasons, the state signed the prison camp -- complete with a greenhouse and pristine farmland -- over to Peoria County in 2008. But the gift came with conditions and strict instructions; Hanna City can’t be developed or sold. And, if rejuvenated, it must be done for public use only. Also, since it remains an active radar center run by the FAA to track aircraft, nothing metal can be built close by.
John Hamann, the county’s rural economic development director, says the county has considered giving Hanna City back to the state.
“Some of the buildings are falling apart. And inside, it looked as though everyone decided to just up and leave. Papers were still on desks, dishes were on the tables, and pairs of bowling shoes [the camp had a bowling alley for recreation] were left sitting out and untied, like someone just slipped them off,” Hamann says.
It was, as some county officials have admitted, a pretty crappy gift.
That is until Mary Ardapple got her hands on the place. Long interested in food, Ardapple, a Peoria County board member who owns a local bakery, was inspired to re-envision Hanna City after she took a trip to Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, where organic food farms dot the landscape.