Food storage hub for the needy proposed at Emma Store site |

Food storage hub for the needy proposed at Emma Store site

Emma town site on Highway 82.
Aspen Times archive photo

Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails Program has spent 14 years and more than $3 million trying to figure what to do with the historic Emma Town site buildings and property next to Highway 82 in the midvalley.

On Tuesday, a group that includes Open Space officials, representatives of Pitkin County’s Human Services Department and directors of regional food banks presented an idea for a food storage hub that resonated with Pitkin County commissioners and members of the Open Space and Trails board of trustees.

“I just love this idea,” said Commissioner Francie Jacober, who noted echoes of the Emma Store’s historic uses in the proposal. “I think it’s so cool, and I fully support it.”

No decisions about future use of the property — located between Basalt and El Jebel — were made Tuesday. Instead the Open Space Program will move forward with a feasibility study of the proposal and come back to commissioners and the Open Space Board members in the fall to see if the food hub concept should move forward, said Gary Tennenbaum, Open Space and Trails director.

Pitkin County’s Open Space Program bought the 12.5-acre Emma Town site in 2008 for $2.65 million after the property owner at the time threatened to knock down several historic buildings, including a residence, dating back more than 100 years that together are known as the Emma Store buildings, according to Tennenbaum and a memo to commissioners about the project.

The store, which was on the Rio Grande Railroad, used to supply the area’s ranches and communities with various goods, he said. The program then spent an additional $650,000 stabilizing the buildings’ roofs and walls, with the goal of finding a long-term use for them.

“It’s been 14 years now, and we’re still not there,” Tennenbaum said Tuesday. “Today, we’re talking about a vision of what those things could be.”

Officials from the county’s Human Services Department recently approached Tennenbaum and other Open Space representatives and proposed not only a place to store food for distribution to food insecure individuals and families in the Roaring Fork Valley but also as a place where area farmers could store surplus crops like root vegetables, he said.

Food insecurity is an issue for 33% of households in Pitkin County, Garfield County and Colorado in general, said Sam Landercasper, Pitkin County’s manager of economic assistance. And a lack of warehouse space in the pricey Roaring Fork Valley leads to supply chain issues for organizations including the Food Bank of the Rockies, LIFT-UP and others that distribute food to them, he said.

The Emma food hub would not be a place where families and individuals would come to pick up food, he said.

Ivan Jackson, director of LIFT-UP, said his organization is in the midst of implementing mobile food pantries that can spend a few hours at a site distributing food and move on to another area and repeat the process. However, once the trucks are empty, they must return to the organization’s warehouse in Parachute to reload. A mid-valley storage site would save a lot of driving and time, he said.

A storage site with a root vegetable cellar would be an added bonus, Jackson said, because local farmers could produce more food if additional storage was available.

Eden Vardy, executive director of the Farm Collaborative, agreed, saying that lack of storage and refrigeration is the No. 1 problem for regional agricultural producers.

Members of the two boards worried about traffic impacts on the surrounding neighborhood, the size of trucks that might service the hub and whether those trucks would be parked overnight. All of that would be worked out during the feasibility study, though entrance to the buildings is already designated to be from the back and not from the front side, which faces Highway 82.

Michael Kinsley, a member of the Open Space Board and a former longtime Pitkin County commissioner, was one of those concerned about the traffic impacts, which he called “key” to any development plans. However, he also said he was on the committee that years ago tried to contemplate uses for the Emma site.

“When I heard this concept, I said, ‘That’s it,’” Kinsley said. “It clearly fits.”

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