When the ground softens this spring, Akron could swap four baseball fields for the biggest community garden the city has ever seen.

Douglas Wurtz saw a need in North Hill, a neighborhood historically defined by cultures coming together around baseball and, more recently, by thousands of Bhutanese refugees. A history of agriculture imported with the immigrants presented Wurtz and the city with an opportunity.

That’s where the four ball fields at Sammis Park come into play, just south of four larger baseball diamonds sponsored by FirstEnergy off state Route 8. The two ballparks are visible from Route 8. There’s actually a dozen baseball fields about a grand slam from Patterson Avenue between Tallmadge and East Cuyahoga Falls avenues.

The four city-owned fields at Sammis Park are hardly used or maintained. These 4.5 acres would be converted into a massive community garden with plots for green-thumbed residents and possibly greenhouses, if Wurtz can first grow community interest and philanthropic support.

Right now, he's hoping to get the ground tilled and fertilized this year. But the long-term plan is to create an educational exchange where horticulture experts and students at local universities could share best practices with residents, who might have something to teach in return. Eventually, Wurtz sees sustainable farming that feeds the community with healthy produce and jobs.

“I’m not sure that we’ll be able to do all of that. It will depend on the response from the community,” said Wurtz, who is starting to knock on doors to circulate his idea with neighbors. “This is just an effort from the heart, and I believe that as it moves forward all the provisions necessary will flow.”

 

City approved

The city is on board.

John Valle, the director of Neighborhood Assistance, signed a 20-year license deal in October giving Wurtz’s new farming cooperative sole access to the property, at no charge. Wurtz would be responsible for mowing and maintaining the city-owned land.

In September, faith-based volunteers with First Serve painted the concession stand and small garage on the property, which will be used to store garden tools. Now, what’s really needed is a community conversation.

Wurtz, who can be reached at akroncoopertivefarms@gmail.com or 330-247-8115, held a public meeting last Tuesday. He’s planning another soon since snow-covered streets kept many from attending, including Ward 2 Councilman Bruce Kilby, who supports the concept but said he was busy helping neighbors clear driveways. One of his Democratic challengers in the May primary election for council, Phil Lombardo, showed up to support the project.

 

Mission backed

Beyond North Hill, the community garden project is the flagship initiative for the Akron Leadership Foundation (AKLF), an offshoot of South Street Ministries.

Since forming in 2017, the organization above the Front Porch Café on Grant Street has put more than 200 mission-driven residents through leadership training on everything from cultural sensitivity and grant writing to understanding trauma in poorer neighborhoods.

While most foundations dole out grants, AKLF identifies “people who are close to the pain and opportunity of the city.” These potential leaders are advised on entrepreneurial fundraising and business planning by CEO Bryson Davis, economic guru Charles Roe and Donovan Harris, who spent 18 years in jail and the past 13 helping former convicts re-enter society.

“We’re just a startup, barely two years old," said Davis. "Where we do have deep pockets is in relationships across the city.”

Foundation administrators lean on board members like the Rev. Duane Crabbs or Kara Ulmer, the director of World Relief Akron, a faith-based refugee resettlement agency.

Davis co-signed Wurtz's land use deal with the city. They connected last year through South Street Ministries. A decade earlier, Wurtz and his wife went to the International Institute of Akron to see how they might help newly arriving refugees.

The rewarding experience led Wurtz to help a landlord and friend put in a small community garden at a Dayton Street apartment complex. Unable to track down the owner of a vacant lot next door, Wurtz just went ahead last year and doubled the grow area by tilling the neglected lot, which blossomed with local farmers.

"It was just beautiful to see. They love it out there," Wurtz said of refugee families using the space. "It’s just so much a part of their lives."

 

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.