by Jeff Gore
Last week, we described the controversy surrounding a plan by downtown developer Craig Ustler and his girlfriend, Melissa Barron, to transform a .35 acre patch of land at the edge of Lake Eola into a vegetable garden. The plan drew ire from local organic growers, chiefly because Barron works for giant global agribusiness Syngenta, which specializes in the production of genetically-modified seeds. (The company also reportedly holds several patents on “Terminator” technology.) In the early stages of the Eola Garden, Syngenta appeared to be intimately tied to the project; after attention from local growers and the Weekly, the company’s name has all but disappeared from the discussion.
Though the Eola Garden is a completely private venture, Ustler and Barron are still looking to a garden-savvy public to make it a reality. Last night, the couple held a meeting at Urban ReThink, attended by roughly two dozen people, half of whom appeared to be skeptical—along with a select few who were openly hostile—to discuss the proposal.
Richard Powell, the founder of the Festival Park community garden who sparked the outcry over the Syngenta connection through Facebook, was conciliatory. “If you were to go organic,” Powell told Ustler, “you’d have the whole community behind you.”
In reply, Ustler told Powell he had concerns that the garden could also become “too successful,” which would create problems when the land is inevitably sold. “In a sense that everybody says: oh my God, that’s the greatest thing ever,” Ustler explained, “[and now,] you took away my garden.”
Ustler and Barron still appear to be struggling to figure out how to reconcile public volunteerism with the limitations of private real estate—one audience member suggested giving volunteers gift certificates to the restaurants (also owned by Ustler) which would serve the vegetables. Ustler said he would consider it.
So, what’s next for the garden? It’s hard to tell. Ustler, Barron, and their partner Chris Merritt will be exchanging ideas with interested parties online, but none of the outstanding issues--the garden's impermanence, funding, clarity of Syngenta's role--appear to have been solved. Stay tuned for updates.
Also: Below are two documents connected to last week’s story on the Eola Garden proposal. One is a letter from Melissa Barron to the city zoning authority requesting approval to plant a garden, the other is a list of community gardens in Central Florida compiled by the Simple Living Institute. (The list has been edited to fit within the Scribd format.)
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