Government & Politics

Tilapia farm fight has new combatant: KC Land Bank

Inner-city aquaponics project to grow tilapia and veggies

Nile Valley Aquaponics, a Males to Men and Kansas City Keys project, is building a greenhouse structure at 29th Street and Wabash Avenue where thousands of pounds of tilapia and vegetables will be raised.
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Nile Valley Aquaponics, a Males to Men and Kansas City Keys project, is building a greenhouse structure at 29th Street and Wabash Avenue where thousands of pounds of tilapia and vegetables will be raised.

The fight over an aquaponics greenhouse and community garden escalated this week when the Land Bank of Kansas City threatened to take back the land the project is built on.

Dre Taylor, working with neighborhood volunteers, built the greenhouse in a Kansas City food desert at 29th Street and Wabash Avenue. Harrel Johnson Jr., who heads the Kansas City Keys nonprofit, locked Taylor out just as the project was nearing completion.

When a story about the fight appeared Monday in The Star, the head of the Land Bank jumped in.

“It appears Dre made something happen over there and the Keys are holding him hostage,” Land Bank executive director Ted Anderson said Tuesday. “I thought Dre had a great idea. But this thing appears to be unraveling.

“We can take the land back.”

None of the Kansas City Keys board members, including Johnson, responded to a request for comment for this story. One has already resigned because of the dispute.

For more than a year, Taylor led the plan for Nile Valley Aquaponics. He hoped to grow tilapia and fresh vegetables for a poor neighborhood while providing a few jobs and a sense of community in a rough part of town.

But then Johnson locked him out — after trying to sell him the land for $350,000. The Keys owns the property.

“The Keys paid $300 and is now trying to sell it for $350,000 — after a year,” Anderson said.

Anderson sent a letter Monday to Johnson and all the other board members for the Kansas City Keys, referring to the dispute and reminding them of the agreed-upon use for the land. Anderson demanded receipts and lien releases for work done on the property.

Taylor said Tuesday that he was pleased with the Land Bank’s move. He has met with attorneys about a possible lawsuit.

In a story Monday in The Star, Johnson’s parents, who provided two additional lots for the project, praised Taylor and criticized their son for his actions. Harrel Johnson Sr. and his wife, Myrtle, are original founders of the Keys, which started in the early 1970s to improve social services in the neighborhood.

Taylor began work on the project about a year ago on five lots on the northeast end of the block. Three of the lots, long neglected, came from the Land Bank, which takes vacant lots and tries to return them to productive use. Two of the lots were given to the Keys by Harrel Johnson Jr.’s parents.

“People don’t pay us market value,” Anderson said. “They give us a little money and they promise to do the work they say they are going to do.”

A non-monetary deed of trust allows the land bank to reclaim the property if the proposal is not followed.

In this case, the land bank approved a plan in which the Kansas City Keys and Taylor would collaborate on Nile Valley Aquaponics.

Taylor, often aided by neighborhood volunteers, set about building the 120-foot-long greenhouse. On weekends, boys in a mentoring group Taylor founded called Males to Men also helped.

The project drew praise locally and nationally. Donations and grants rolled in to help fund construction.

Taylor said he became connected to the Keys organization through a friend, Deandre Johnson, a coach for the Keys and Harrel Johnson Jr.’s son.

Taylor provided an itemized statement that showed 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.

Taylor also said he borrowed $50,000 to keep the work going.

But just as the fish were set to arrive, Harrel Johnson Jr. seized the property.

In the Aug. 15 letter, Johnson told Taylor that it was never the Keys’ intent 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.

Johnson also told Taylor in the letter not to contact The Star, any other media or donors about the aquaponics project.

Taylor said grants written by him paid for construction costs. He offered to pay $8,000 for the land.

Meanwhile, Taylor, who worked at the site nearly every day for a year, is saddened by what he sees there.

“The weeds are growing and the chickens aren’t getting fed,” he said. “A lot of neglect going on.”

Nile Valley Aquaponics is planning to produce 100,000 pounds of fish and 75,000 pounds of vegetables through an aquaponic garden, where waste from farmed fish is filtered through plants and returned to the fish.

Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182

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