Early this summer, tomatoes, cucumbers and cabbage grew lush on the corner of 29th Street and Wabash Avenue.
Free pickings for the neighborhood. Strangers came together here. They grabbed tools and pitched in, sharing hot work, good talk and cold water.
They believed this place special — an oasis in a rough part of town.
The locks on the gates changed that.
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The story of Nile Valley Aquaponics, which began with a simple dream to become one of the most innovative community gardens in the country, has wilted into a sad tale of money, disillusionment, threats of legal action and a family feud.
“I hate that it came to this,” said Dre Taylor, 35, who came up with the idea for the project and led the work over the past year. “I wanted this to be something good and we worked hard. And now it’s been taken away from me, just like that.”
Taylor’s plan was to raise tilapia, a high-protein fish, and grow fresh vegetables for a poor neighborhood in a food desert while providing a few jobs and a means to instill a sense of community and work ethic in boys.
The idea grew praise locally and nationally. Donations and grants rolled in to fund construction. Tour buses came by.
But Taylor made a mistake — a big one.
He didn’t stake legal claim to that dirt he was turning.
Not long ago, as the 120-foot-long aquaponics greenhouse project was nearing completion, Harrel Johnson Jr., the president of the Kansas City Keys, the nonprofit group that owns the property and that Taylor used to secure grants for the project, put new locks on the gates, barring Taylor from the property.
The action came after the Keys organization offered to sell the property to Taylor for $350,000. In a letter dated Aug. 15, Johnson told Taylor that it was never the intent for the Keys to hand over the project to him.
Also, Johnson said, the organization put in $100,000 on the work.
His $350,000 asking price was based on anticipated profits of $100,000 annually for three years and $50,000 of goodwill, according to the letter.
Taylor questioned the propriety of a nonprofit like the Keys using anticipated profits to settle on a price.
He offered to pay $8,000 for the property. He has met with attorneys to discuss a possible lawsuit.
Harrel Johnson Jr. declined to comment for this story.
Taylor acknowledges being naive. He said he got so carried away by what he wanted to do on the land that he overlooked ownership. But he didn’t think there would be a problem because the ground had long been vacant lots.
He said he got connected to the Keys organization through a friend, Deandre Johnson, a coach for the Keys and Harrel Johnson Jr.’s son.
Taylor also says that contrary to Harrel Johnson Jr.’s claim that the Keys organization put in $100,000 on the project, it was grants that paid for construction costs, and Taylor personally put in $50,000.
In a statement about the situation, Taylor wrote: “The Kansas City Keys have not hammered one nail, moved a board or planted one plant on the property.”
Taylor’s statement itemized about $110,000 in grants from individuals, charities, foundations and the city of Kansas City, which provided $11,500 after Taylor described the project to the City Council on April 14.
Johnson, in the Aug. 15 letter, told Taylor not to contact the newspaper or any media or donors about the aquaponics project.
Caught in the middle are Johnson’s parents, Harrel Johnson Sr. and Myrtle Johnson, who were original founders of the Keys. The group was organized in the mid-1970s to improve social services and provide youth athletics.
Nile Valley is built on five lots at the northeast end of the block. The Keys owned three of the lots and Harrel Johnson Sr. owned the others.
He said he provided those lots for the project, putting them into his son’s control with the belief that they would go to Taylor. He admired Taylor’s plan, which would include Taylor’s youth mentoring group, “Males to Men.” Boys in the group worked on the project on weekends.
In a story about the project that ran June 26 in The Star, Harrel Johnson Sr. said: “This young man (Taylor) came in here with a dream. Look at what’s going on here. He’s making it happen.”
He said he and his wife did not know why their son has done what he has done.
“This thing should go to Dre,” Myrtle Johnson said. “It was his idea and he did all the work.”
Harrel Johnson Sr. nodded.
“I have nothing good to say about my son right now,” he said. “But he will always be my son.
“This whole thing brings water to my eyes.”
Nearly everybody asked thinks a solution could be found if all sides came to a table.
One Keys board member said he resigned because of the conflict.
“I’ve been involved with the Keys for 20 years and this thing is tearing me up,” Darryn Craig said. “I know Dre. He impressed the community with what he wanted to do. I know Harrel Johnson (Jr.) says the land is Keys land.
“I thought it was just better for me to step away.”
Another board member, April Boyd-Norohna, referred questions to Harrel Johnson Jr. When reached by phone, Johnson said he would return a call to The Star, but never did.
In the Aug. 15 letter, Johnson offered to allow Taylor to retain the project on a lease basis for $5,000 a month.
“We explained clearly the intentions of the project was an investment for the Keys and the community and it had never been our intention to transfer or gift any of the property over,” Johnson wrote.
Taylor says he had spent nearly every day at the site since ground was broken Oct. 10, 2015.
“My vision has (been to take) abandoned, troubled lots and transform them into what will be one of the most innovative urban farms in the community,” he said. “I have put my heart, soul and life into Nile Valley Aquaponics.”
He thinks Johnson plans on bringing in new people to run the aquaponic operation.
The site was quiet last week. Down the block, Dave West stood on his front porch and spoke sadly about what had happened. He had volunteered early on at Nile Valley and eventually became an employee. The work had served as a catharsis after his mother died.
“I was asked if I wanted to still work there, but I said no,” he said. “I liked it the way it was. Working for Dre. It’s different now. We were all there together before. That’s all gone.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182