Developer envisions $20M farming operation to replace plant

A local entrepreneur is laying the groundwork for a $20 million transformation of a soon-to-close automotive plant into a sustainable farming operation that would raise fish and hydroponic vegetables.

Alex Carroll, who co-owns Lifeline Data Centers, envisions an operation turning out striped bass and butterhead lettuce instead of hydraulic steering components at the 160-acre property at Shadeland and English avenues on the east side of Indianapolis.

He's talking about his ideas with city officials and the property owner, Automotive Components Holdings, which is managed by Ford Motor Co.

The plant is scheduled to close for good April 30, after which Automotive Components Holdings will begin a months-long process to dispose of equipment and assess any environmental damage, said Della DiPietro, a company spokeswoman. The property would then go up for sale.

Carroll's proposed plant transformation, which he said would cost about $20 million, would turn the outdated 1.8-million-square-foot manufacturing facility into a showcase for aquaponic agriculture. In aquaponics, water used to raise fish is recycled to grow vegetables, which soak up nutrients from fish byproduct. Then the water is used to raise more fish. There's no need for soil.

"This is the wave of the future," Carroll explained, noting that traditional farming methods cannot produce enough food to feed a fast-growing population. "It is how farming is going to move forward."

Carroll cautioned that his proposal is "very theoretical" at this point. But he has experience reusing blighted properties in the area: He's one of two partners leading the conversion of the former Eastgate Consumer Mall into a high-tech data center and office space.

Deputy Mayor Michael Huber called the idea "intriguing" but said the city would need to get a better handle on the industry and proposed business model before offering support for the proposal.

Carroll is confident there's plenty of demand for the food his operation could produce: striped bass, rainbow trout or salmon, along with butterhead lettuce, peppers and spinach, depending on the season.

"There's phenomenol demand," said Carroll, who serves on the board of the Indiana Aquaculture Association. "It way outstrips productivity."

The farming operation would employ about 100 people, he said. It would reuse the existing building and would not require disturbance of any potential environmental hazards underground.

The automotive plant has just 150 employees left, down from more than 1,000 in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ford is phasing out the hydrolic steering systems the plant builds in favor of electric power steering.

The plant, which opened in 1957, has been targeted for closing since 2006, but the plant's workers won reprieves thanks to union concessions and a delay in Ford's rollout of power steering across all of its vehicles.

The reuse plans have neighbors hopeful the massive property won't sit vacant for as long as the former Eastgate mall, said Cathie Carrigan, who lives in Irvington Terrace and serves as a coordinator of the neighborhood watch group.

The idea of buying produce grown in her neighborhood is exciting to Carrigan and her neighbors, who already succeeded in convincing the local Marsh to carry hydroponic tomatoes, albeit ones grown outside the U.S.

"This would be such a creative reuse of space and infrastructure," Carrigan said. "It's fantastic."

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