The eight 20-foot tall, rusted steel lights that surround Junedale Park poorly depict the historical significance of the former Little League baseball stadium that many considered the finest in Northwest Indiana before the 1980’s. The steel fences and wooden bleachers that used to shine under the stadium lights now battle with tall, straggly weeds to find sunlight.
It is hard to imagine that this Gary, IN stadium will host a sporting event now or anytime soon. Yet, Fresh Coast Capital’s Nicole Chavas believes this property can still host life and prosperity for the surrounding community.
Parallel rows of thin, leafy poplar trees reaching two-feet tall cover the interior of the stadium where a baseball diamond used to stand. With these plants, Fresh Coast hopes to both revitalize the defunct park and create economic opportunity.
“Fresh Coast is an impact-driven, real-estate firm,” Chavas said. “We acquire vacant and contaminated properties and develop them into working landscapes. So, tree farms, urban agriculture, and green infrastructure projects using private capital.”
The work completed in Junedale Park provides testament to the ability of Delta Emerging Leaders’ (DELs) live, crowd-funded pitch fest, BOOST, to advance innovative, social ventures and projects that address energy, waste, and ecosystem challenges faced by the Midwest.
“We first heard about BOOST as a potential opportunity to help us get some resources and push our work forward,” Chavas said. “It seemed like a perfect fit since our work was originally inspired by the Delta Institute and it fit perfectly within the focus areas of BOOST.”
Fresh Coast left last December’s BOOST as one of the two winning social entrepreneurs and received nearly $4,000 in grant money to plant 2,800 poplar trees at Junedale Park. In late June of this year, Fresh Coast planted the tree seedlings that will provide beautification, storm water management, and soil remediation services to the area.
Once the woody biomass reaches a sufficient level, Fresh Coast plans to harvest the trees and process the material into woodchips, biomass energy products, and lightweight wood for cabinets, doors, and paneling.
“We have two sites that were previously overgrown, attracting dumping and crime, and now those sites are actively managed and providing beautification for those neighborhoods,” Chavas said.
Fresh Coast’s focus on using ecosystem services to achieve economic and social benefits for struggling post-industrial communities captured the support and interest of the BOOST audience who chose the top innovators and grant recipients by voting with their ticket contributions.
“We haven’t done anything like this before, where you are vying for a prize, but at the same time you are learning about other organizations, meeting people, and getting your name out there,” said May Tsupros, president and co-founder of the Gardeneers and presenter at last year’s BOOST.
The Gardeneers, a non-profit that provides technical and financial support to Chicago area schools to build and maintain gardens for educational programming, joined Fresh Coast as the second BOOST 2014 grant recipient.
“Last December was a really crucial time in terms of our growth, because at that point we were deciding how many schools we were going to take on,” Tsupros explained.
The grant helped the Gardeneers grow their garden support network from nine Chicago schools in December to 19 schools today. This expansion allowed the Gardeneers to teach more than 1000 students the importance of healthy eating and active lifestyles.
“By beautifying lots and increasing food accessibility, gardens could do wonders for the neighborhood and the environment,” Tsupros said. “Ultimately, it would help my students plant and grow their own food and learn about that food to increase their access and knowledge of it.”
Both the Gardeneers and Fresh Coast Capital see their work expanding to places and schools across the United States. The Gardeneers want to plant 100 school gardens across three cities. Meanwhile, Fresh Coast set the goal of building more than 50,000 acres of poplar tree farms in Rust Belt cities over the next five to seven years.
“We made a lot of wonderful contacts at BOOST that we are still lucky to have and use today,” Tsupros said.
Both Tsupros and Chavas look forward to attending and voting in this year’s BOOST Funding Event on Tuesday, November 3rd.
“I think the community-funded aspect brings people in who might not otherwise come and see a pitch event like this, feeling that their actual dollars are contributing to the prize,” Chavas said.
Tickets are open to the public and can be purchased on publicgood.com. The event kicks off at 7 pm at the Chop Shop (2033 W North Ave, Chicago). Learn more about the event on the BOOST page.