Can Detroit’s RecoveryPark recover?

A multimillion-dollar farm that was supposed to provide jobs for Detroiters is now in ruins. Its founder has a checkered past.

click to enlarge A multimillion-dollar farm that was supposed to provide jobs for people facing employment barriers is now in ruins. Its founder has a checkered past. - Lee DeVito
Lee DeVito
A multimillion-dollar farm that was supposed to provide jobs for people facing employment barriers is now in ruins. Its founder has a checkered past.

As Gary Wozniak tells it, his career in finance started in the 1980s when he did a cost-benefit analysis on what it would take to pursue a master's and Ph.D in psychology, his major as an undergrad at Oakland University, and realized he would never be able to pay off his student loans.

"So I decided to take a different path, and I went to Wall Street and became a stockbroker," he tells a class during a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design in a video from Oct. 11, 2018. The class laughs.

"Normal progression," he says. "I was really good at managing money, I was really good at picking investments, I was really good at working with people, and so I figured that would be a different career path for me to take."

He adds, "I don't know how many of you have seen movies like The Wolf of Wall Street. That was kind of me, only not that bad." Still, it was pretty bad. "I come from a long line of alcoholics," he tells the class. "I swore I would never become one, and I didn't. I became a drug addict instead." As Wozniak recalls, he was using up to a half-ounce of cocaine a day and washing it down with a fifth of alcohol. "I was using clients' money to support my addiction and my lifestyle," he says. In 1987 he went into drug treatment, and in 1988, he was sentenced to five years in a minimum-security federal prison in Duluth, Minnesota, for fraud.

When he was released early in 1991, Wozniak says he spent months looking for a job. Nobody would hire him. After another fruitless job interview, "I went home that night and I looked in the mirror, and I was just tired and beat up," he tells the class. "And I swore I would never let anybody tell me no again."

Eventually, Wozniak opened a Jet's Pizza franchise in Hamtramck. Then he opened three more. He also started his own financial consulting business, as well as a marketing company with operations in New York and the Bahamas, among other ventures. Wozniak says he has since owned seven businesses.

He vowed to help other people struggling with addiction rebuild their lives, too. "My basic mantra for people that have made bad decisions in their life is to grow up, make better decisions, set some goals, align yourself with people that can help you achieve those goals, and keep moving," he tells the class. "Don't listen to the noise around you, 'cause everybody's going to tell you why what you did in life that was bad is always going to haunt you. It doesn't have to haunt you."

In 2008, Wozniak was working as a consultant for Self-Help Addiction Rehabilitation (SHAR), a Detroit nonprofit that helps people recovering from addiction, whose program Wozniak himself graduated from in 1987. SHAR called him in for help balancing their books; as he recalls, the organization was spending $6 million a year, but only bringing in $5 million. Wozniak says he was quickly able to turn the nonprofit around, without laying off any people.

That's when he got an idea to explore a business model that could support the nonprofit — by establishing a commercial farm that would raise money for the nonprofit side.

"They thought I was crazy," he tells the class. "They wanted to drug-test me."

Sensing that young people were fueling a farm-to-table revival, Wozniak realized customers might be willing to pay a premium of prices 20-40% higher than market rate for produce knowing that it was for a good cause. Wozniak also had a personal connection to farming: Growing up, he helped his grandparents at their 50-acre farm in Shelby Township, and they sold their wares — fruit, vegetables, eggs, milk, and cheese — at Chene-Ferry Farmer Market in Detroit's historic Poletown neighborhood, which Wozniak says was his first memory. Eventually, he managed greenhouses owned by Frank's Nursery. "By the time I graduated college, I could literally run the facility myself," he tells the class. "I swore at that point I would never get back into agriculture. It's funny how life kind of comes full circle."

Commercial farming is something Wozniak says had not been done in Detroit city limits since the late 1800s, distinguished from Detroit's many smaller urban farms and community gardens by size. But Wozniak believed a large-scale farm could be a way to utilize the many vacant parcels of land that have appeared in the city over decades of depopulation, and provide jobs for people who were once like him, experiencing barriers to employment — addiction, criminal records, or illiteracy.

RecoveryPark was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2010, along with a holding company, RecoveryPark Farms, Wozniak's eighth business. He launched a plan to acquire more than 100 parcels of land in Poletown, anchored by the abandoned Chene-Ferry market. With initial funding from investors, RecoveryPark launched a pilot farm in 2014, and by the time of the University of Pennsylvania lecture, Wozniak says it was employing about 20 people and selling produce to 130 restaurants. Midtown's hip Chartreuse even offered a "RecoveryPark" salad on its menu at the time.

"We're a for-impact company, as opposed to a nonprofit, because we're here to make an impact," he tells the class. "We're not here to lose money."

Wozniak and the project became media darlings, appearing in The Wall Street Journal, NBC News, and The New York Times, with the headline "Detroit: The Most Exciting City in America?" It received support from foundations and organizations, including the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Scripps Howard Foundation, DTE Energy, SHAR, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation's Michigan Strategic Fund, among others.

Wozniak even charmed Mayor Mike Duggan, who stopped by in October 2015 to announce a deal to transfer 40 acres owned by the Land Bank to be leased for $105 per acre to eventually be owned by RecoveryPark. As part of the deal, the city retained the right to buy back the land if the terms of the agreement were not met, including hiring more than 50% Detroiters.

"RecoveryPark isn't just about transforming this land," Duggan said at a press conference at the time. "It's about transforming lives."

Wozniak tells the class that by 2020, RecoveryPark produce would be sold in 500 restaurants, including the major sports stadiums and hospitals. By 2021, when the operations moved from eight hoop houses to a larger 1.5-acre glass greenhouse as part of a grander $13 million vision, Wozniak predicted the farm would be pulling in nearly $30 million in revenue, and employing at least 100 workers.

But that never happened.

click to enlarge On a recent visit, Metro Times found six of the eight hoop houses were empty, filled with dead vegetation and some trash, their plastic walls torn open. - Lee DeVito
Lee DeVito
On a recent visit, Metro Times found six of the eight hoop houses were empty, filled with dead vegetation and some trash, their plastic walls torn open.

RecoveryPark's glass greenhouse doesn't exist, and the existing hoop houses have been foreclosed on, now owned by the construction firm that helped build them. On a recent visit, Metro Times found six of the eight hoop houses were empty, filled with dead vegetation and some trash, their plastic walls torn open. The other two remaining hoop houses were being used by a separate farm, leased by the construction firm in a deal to try and recoup some losses.

Today RecoveryPark only has one full-time employee that is otherwise experiencing barriers to employment: Wozniak himself.

Reached by phone, Wozniak insists RecoveryPark is still alive.

He says the project is in the process of securing a $6.7 million USDA-backed loan from Greater Commercial Lending, and a $3.4 million loan from PACE Loan group. The remaining several million dollars of the initial $13 million goal were supposed to come from a group of investors, but Wozniak says the project was stalled when they pulled out.

"We do not have the equity investors on board at this point, mostly because of some conflicts with them and us," Wozniak tells Metro Times. He declined to elaborate further, but says he's now in talks with a new group of investors.

"I don't look at the people that aren't at the table anymore," he says. "I look at the new people that are coming to the table, and how do we get to the end?"

Of course, the pandemic didn't help, he says.

"COVID really hurt," Wozniak says. "We closed down our complete operation when COVID hit. Our whole product mix was geared towards the restaurant industry, and all the restaurants closed down, so I had to terminate all staff. I even terminated myself from payroll."

But according to an email obtained by Metro Times, all RecoveryPark staff were terminated on Feb. 11, 2020 — nearly a month before Michigan confirmed its first COVID-19 cases, and before most people had ever heard the word "coronavirus."

"The decision has been made by the equity investors not to proceed to a closing," Wozniak wrote in the email. "We have no choice but to start winding down our operations."

According to ProPublica's database, RecoveryPark received two rounds of federal Paycheck Protection Program loans: $91,700 approved on April 27, 2020, and $92,900 approved on Feb. 10, 2021. In a follow-up email, Wozniak says RecoveryPark currently employs five part-time formerly incarcerated workers, which he shares with another organization, Future Build Construction Group. "Our resources, which are very limited, are being used to pay returning citizens to maintain our properties," he says, adding, "The PPP funds were used in compliance with the PPP regulations which allowed us to continue our mission to elevate how citizens are treated post-incarceration."

Wozniak says the abandoned hoop houses were always intended to be temporary, and the decision to close them down was made in the fall of 2019. "They're plastic buildings. It's really hard to run them in the winter time," he says. "I mean, the gas bills on them are just astronomical."

He says they were intended to be a sort of trial run for training workers and figuring out which products RecoveryPark could grow. "We tested probably close to 170 different types of things, from edible flowers, to root vegetables, to cherry tomatoes, to different types of lettuces and kale, you name it," he says. The hope was to be able to shift farming operations to the yet-to-be-constructed glass greenhouse, which would utilize a high-tech hydroponic technique and focus exclusively on leafy greens, which Wozniak says are more profitable. The hoop houses, also known as high tunnels, were to be transitioned to another use, such as being leased to other farmers, as two of them are now.

"The high tunnels, for the two-and-a-half, three years that they were up and running, we lost a lot of money on them," Wozniak says. "But we proved out all of the things that we needed to prove, and we knew that the money that we lost, we would make up in revenue really quickly once the greenhouse was built."

Though he declines to offer a new timeline for the project, "We're moving ahead," Wozniak says.

click to enlarge RecoveryPark's pilot farm. - Anna Kohn
Anna Kohn
RecoveryPark's pilot farm.

RecoveryPark's financial troubles started long before the pandemic, according to an audit of the company's finances from 2018 to 2019 obtained by Metro Times.

"During the fiscal year ended September 30, 2019, the Organization incurred a loss from operations of $1,057,354, had a net asset deficiency of $2,204,479 and $64,973 in financial assets available to meet cash needs for expenditures within one year," the report stated. "These items raise substantial doubt about the Organization's ability to continue as a going concern."

Several former employees and people who have done business with RecoveryPark tell Metro Times that paychecks were sporadic, and several vendors say they are still owed money. Nevertheless, some workers say they or their families donated their own time and money to the project to try and help make it a reality. They say that they stuck with RecoveryPark because they believed in Wozniak's story — to create jobs for Detroiters, to utilize vacant land, and bring tax dollars back into the city.

That includes Anna Kohn, RecoveryPark's former chief impact officer, who says she started working with Wozniak in 2015.

"I always believed, and everyone on my team always believed, that this was a brilliant idea — because it was," she tells Metro Times. "But it had the wrong leader."

She adds, "He's a smart guy. He's compelling. He's charming. He's a salesman. He knows what he's doing. Like many of the tyrants in the world, you can't do this if you're an idiot."

Multiple former employees and vendors declined to speak to Metro Times on the record out of fear of retaliation or concerns about not receiving money owed. But Kohn says she's breaking her silence in the hope that others will come forward.

"I'm tired of seeing him get away with it," she says.

“A different leader could’ve done it,” one former employee says. “The project in spirit could still exist, but the current reputations and the brand and all of that would have to go very far away.”

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"I may have been naive, but I'm not stupid," Kohn says. "And my colleagues were not stupid. We bought a story that, to so many people in Detroit, was so compelling. We couldn't not be there for it."

Kohn says she's worked in nonprofits all her life, especially dealing with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. "I totally understand transparency," she says. "But I remember looking past things ... and then Gary would come into my office and say, 'Can you skip a paycheck this week?'"

Kohn says the reality of the failure of RecoveryPark sunk in on Feb. 13, 2020, days after the entire staff was laid off via email, when she was sent to go to clean out the basement of RecoveryPark's office to shut down a 500-square-foot hydroponic pond used as a prototype to show investors the technology that would be used in the greenhouse. Kohn went down into the basement, drained the pond, and threw out the remaining produce.

"It absolutely broke my heart," Kohn says, sobbing. "So many people poured their heart and soul into making this happen, and because of one person's mismanagement, we couldn't get to the finish line."

Kohn says she feels the project is still a good idea, but believes Wozniak must step down for it to succeed.

"I don't think it's possible for the project to get back on track under Gary Wozniak's leadership," she says. "I also don't believe the project could get back on track with the name RecoveryPark. I do believe that there is a lot of virtue in the business model, as far as training people how to grow food."

She adds, "A different leader could've done it. The project in spirit could still exist, but the current reputations and the brand and all of that would have to go very far away."

Greg Willerer, an urban farmer who owns and operates Detroit's Brother Nature Produce, says he was initially approached by Wozniak as a consultant to help set up the farms. Even though Willerer has his own one-acre salad farm, he admits he thought it was exciting when RecoveryPark hit the scene.

"The fact that they [paid] all of that attention to detail, the build-out is really impressive," he says. "They were off to a really good start."

The way Willerer sees it, Recovery-Park was able to use its story to get deals that smaller urban farmers can't, like the 40-acre land deal from the city of Detroit.

"It's just a slap in face to Detroiters and to urban farmers," he says. "You know, we don't get a break. If we want to buy land from the Land Bank, we've got to pay market rate. We're working our asses off, and he got all these grants, and a sweetheart deal, pennies on the dollar for the land that he bought from the city of Detroit, and he let them go — without any sort of contingency plan. Like, if I had a business and I couldn't see it through, I'd find someone to take it. It's just a black eye to the city and especially the urban farmers. It makes us all look bad."

Willerer says Wozniak offered him a position at RecoveryPark in 2009, shortly after Willerer quit his job as a Detroit teacher to pursue urban farming full-time. He says Wozniak offered him an eye-popping salary of $80,000, which Willerer says he felt he had to turn down. (In a follow-up email, Wozniak says, "I cannot comment on personnel issues — either discussions, previous employees or current employees.")

"It just didn't seem right," Willerer says. "It just seemed too good to be true. And, you know, being a Detroiter, I know when something isn't adding up. I didn't believe it for a second."

Willerer says he and other urban farmers hope to take over management of the RecoveryPark space, though in a follow-up email Wozniak says the two have not spoken.

"If it's just gonna sit there, it's an extreme waste," Willerer says.

click to enlarge Gary Wozniak. - Stephan Röhl, Flickr Creative Commons
Stephan Röhl, Flickr Creative Commons
Gary Wozniak.

None of the people Metro Times spoke with believe Wozniak has fallen back into the felony behavior that landed him in federal prison in the 1980s.

Still, of Wozniak's recent behavior, Kohn says, "What I can say to you confidently is, given my background, I have seen people go to prison for much less."

Wozniak's earlier misdeeds were chronicled in the Detroit Free Press at the time, which reported that the "high society stockbroker" who lived in Detroit's posh Indian Village neighborhood was accused of "swindling investors out of hundreds and thousands of dollars by taking their money and then not buying the stock." According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Wozniak was fired from Merrill Lynch, where he worked as a financial consultant, for making unauthorized trades and borrowing money. Wozniak then went to work for Marantette & Co. in Detroit, where the SEC accused him of persuading customers to put more than $160,000 in a "special account" that was actually Wozniak's personal bank account. In the end, Wozniak was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $250,000 for defrauding 18 investors of more than $800,000, and Marantette & Co. collapsed in 1987's stock market crash.

"The firm ought to have noticed his lavish spending and entertaining habits if not his business methods, the suits claim," the paper reported in a Feb. 22, 1988 article. In a Sept. 3, 1987 Free Press article, the owner of the Roostertail club said Wozniak "stuck us for thousands" after he threw parties there. "He owes us tons for three parties, and he has bounced checks on a lot of other people around town," owner Tom Schoenith said.

An April 22, 1988 Free Press article reported that Wozniak's victims included his own family, with aunts and uncles saying they had trusted him with their life savings.

"Everybody makes mistakes in his life," his uncle Leo Wozniak told the paper.

"That's one big mistake," his wife Mary added.

In a statement, Wozniak says, "I am very open and vocal about having been to prison 1988-1991 for using clients' money to support a serious cocaine addiction. Since returning, my life's work has been dedicated to elevating how citizens are treated post incarceration — this is the mission of RecoveryPark. My work has taken me to testify in Lansing and Washington, D.C. to advocate for criminal justice reform and prison reform. OU has also honored me with a Ph.D for my decades of hard work in helping returning citizens and recovering addicts to lead positive and productive lives."

But Kohn says that years of working with formerly incarcerated people have taught her that changing bad behavior is hard.

"Being in my field, I really wanted to believe people can change," she says. "They generally can't — that's what I learned."

Still, Kohn wonders if Wozniak has simply channeled his addictive personality into a different pursuit.

"I believe that he is addicted to something else, and that is his work," she says. "He is the hardest-working man in show business. If you drive by RecoveryPark at five in the morning, his car is there."

However, she adds, "I just think it's this incredible farce that he is moving forward."

One person with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in exchange for candor, says that they believe if RecoveryPark does continue, it will not be in a way that will help the formerly incarcerated people who the project was supposed to help in the first place. In the past decade since RecoveryPark was incorporated, Detroit's story has gone from Murder City to Comeback City, and the land RecoveryPark had acquired has become even more valuable.

Last month, Wozniak and RecoveryPark appeared in a YouTube video posted by Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, a group founded by the late activist Grace Lee Boggs, among others. In the video, Wozniak promotes the solar-panel energy system at RecoveryPark.

"One of the things that we decided to do when we approached the city of Detroit to do RecoveryPark is we wanted to do something that was different with the land, so we were repurposing the land," Wozniak says in the video. "We wanted to make sure that we cleaned it up; two, that we put it into use for something that was necessary today and creating jobs; and three, if we ever had to leave this footprint, that we leave this footprint better than we found it — because I believe if we treat Detroit as a trash can, we shouldn't be doing that."

Of course, the jobs don't exist, and RecoveryPark is in worse shape than it was several years ago. In the video, Wozniak stands in one of the two tunnels in use — the ones being leased by an outside group.

"We are building jobs around food," he says.

Wozniak maintains that he's committed to seeing RecoveryPark through, despite the fact that it's been more than a decade since he first came up with the idea.

"In hindsight, this project has taken so long," he admits to Metro Times. "We've overcome so many barriers. You know, COVID was a barrier that was really hard to overcome. I think that we're going to overcome it. Am I going to get the greenhouse built? I think so. When will the final funding be done? It's hard to say. Could we end up doing something else if in fact the greenhouse can't be built because I can't raise the rest of the money?" Wozniak doesn't answer the last question.

"My passion is people coming out of prisons and drug treatment programs," he says. "I mean, I've been doing this work for 30 years since I came out of prison in '91. I've helped hundreds — if not thousands — of people rebuild their lives and become productive members of society. I've helped them start businesses, find funding for businesses. I'm not doing this to get rich. I'm doing this because this is a legacy thing for me."

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Lee DeVito

Leyland “Lee” DeVito is the editor in chief of Detroit Metro Times since 2016. His writing has also been published in CREEM, VICE, In These Times, and New City. He once asked porn star Stormy Daniels to spank him with an issue of Metro Times. She obliged.

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