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Plan would turn abandoned pumping station into culinary center

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It's mostly weeds that grow in the old industrial lots in East Baltimore, but developers have a plan to turn a collection of tumbling-down buildings at a former water pumping station into a place to produce something a bit more nutritious.

Gregory Heller, a senior adviser with Econsult Solutions and the project's manager, described the vision for a "Baltimore food hub" Saturday to a small tour group clustered on the pavement in front of the former Eastern Pumping Station at Gay and Wolfe streets.

"It's a model that works all over the country, and we're excited to have that model coming to Baltimore," Heller said, adding that the aim is to "create jobs in the community."

The developers estimate that the hub will create 100 jobs by its third year of operation in a number of projects run on the 3.5-acre campus. The plans include space for commercial kitchens for local entrepreneurs, a canning facility run by Woodberry Kitchen's Spike Gjerde, a 1-acre farm and a market.

The $16.3 million project is being led by the American Communities Trust, a Baltimore-based foundation, and Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition. Building work is scheduled to start early next year in hopes of opening the center at the end of 2014, Heller said.

If all goes well at the old pumping station, Heller wants to expand to the nearby A. Hoen & Co. lithography plant, which stands empty after the business closed in 1981.

The pumping station was shut behind locked gates. But people were able to get in to the old lithography plant, where rain leaks in through the roof, light creeps into the shadows through broken window panes and daisies push their way through the concrete outside.

Such sights are the last view people riding the Amtrak from New York have of the city before trains duck into a tunnel under the city.

"This is going to create a new gateway to Baltimore," Heller said.

It was the rail line that once drew industry to the city's Broadway East and Middle East neighborhoods. And Heller, who worked on a similar project in Philadelphia, said he sees the revival in locally produced food as a way to breathe new life into a number of unused buildings clustered in the area.

In one of the pumping station buildings, local residents will be able to get set up in commercial kitchens and start their own businesses in a properly licensed facility.

"There are all these local entrepreneurs working out of their own kitchens baking, catering, doing jams and jellies — all types of food products — and it's not legal in most places," he said.

Bill Struever, the founder of American Communities Trust, said he hopes Gjerde can act as a "spiritual adviser" to the new businesses.

Mary Jenkins, who lives nearby, stopped by to listen in on Heller's talk. She said she is excited about the plans.

"It's a beautiful idea," she said. "This used to be a booming place a while back. … It's a good idea they're going to do something to help the community."

Tom Hoen, the son of the last president of the Hoen company, came along Saturday, and brought his daughter Baiz Hoen to the site of the old family business for the first time. He remembered the thrum of the presses and the smell of ink when he used to visit the factory, but his daughter said it was hard to imagine the abandoned building as a hive of activity.

"Without anything in there it's kind of hard to evaluate," she said, but added "the ferns and the ivy growing between the buildings was really cool."

iduncan@baltsun.com

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