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Helpline will buy Port Orchard Nursery, expand operations

South Kitsap Helpline was notified on Thursday afternoon the agency will be awarded a $300,000 grant, enabling the local food bank to purchase the iconic Port Orchard Nursery property on Mitchell Road and vastly expand the scope of its current operations.

“This is just off the charts in terms of the opportunities it offers us,” said Helpline Executive Director Jennifer Hardison. “I can’t begin to describe all the great ideas we have for the property. This is going to make so many of them possible it’s unbelievable.”

First and foremost, Helpline and its volunteers can use the nearly three-acre site to grow their own produce rather than being entirely dependent on donations.

But that’s just the beginning.

Hardison also envisions offering classes on nutrition and agriculture, a children’s camp, enhanced retail sales, vocational training, a farmer’s market and much more.

“Our basic mission is to feed people,” Hardison said. “This will enable us to feed more people, and to feed them healthier food. But it will also give us the means to help educate them about how to help themselves. This is going to raise Helpline and the services it provides to a whole new level.”

Among its other benefits, the addition of fresh produce — which can be preserved and distributed year-round — will allow the food bank to adopt a point system, whereby clients would be encouraged to make healthier food choices.

“Everyone would be allotted a certain number of points,” Hardison explained. “Pop-Tarts and potato chips might be worth five points, while a bag of apples would be worth one point. They get more value by eating nutritious food.

“We didn’t have that option when the only thing we had to offer was macaroni and cheese,” she said. “But now we will.”

The grant money, from the Birkenfeld Trust’s Seattle Foundation, will be used to make a downpayment on the nursery property.

The total purchase price is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $900,000, which includes not only the land, but around 7,000 square feet worth of buildings, including a house, greenhouse and nursery.

Hardison says another third of the funding can easily be obtained through grant money now available to the agency because of its planned educational, vocational and agricultural programs.

The remainder would be raised by a capital campaign Helpline is launching immediately.

Hardison said they have until 2012 to come up with the balance.

The property's sellers, E.B. and Kay Greseth, are retiring. The nursery business was started by E.B.’s father Glen Greseth in 1949.

The idea of purchasing the site is the brainchild of Gardens for Kitsap, a community group consisting of Port Orchard residents Mary Colborn, Loretta Fritz and Karen Stockton.

“They came to me just about three months ago and suggested we try to do this,” Hardison said. “Since then, everything has just gone really quickly.”

Hardison said she expected to hear from the Birkenfeld Trust on Friday about transferring the funds, after which the Helpline directors would arrange to make the downpayment to the Greseths.

Helpline’s lease on its current 7,500-square-foot space in the Westbay Center runs through May 2010, and Hardison said the process of moving the food bank’s operations up the hill to the nursery facility will begin after the first of the year.

“We’ll be in there completely a year from now,” she said. “In the meantime, we have a lot of work to do.”

While the new site will be much larger, Hardison believes the agency’s operating costs will actually be lower. Or at least there will be more opportunities to recoup them.

For one thing, owning its own home will eliminate the need to write a monthly rent check. Moreover, all the new programs Hardison and Gardens for Kitsap envision will make the agency eligible for a wide variety of grants.

“We’re planning all sorts of workshops and gardening classes,” she said. “That would enable us to apply for education- and agricultural-type grants. Then we can do job-training programs onsite that would be eligible for vocational grant money. The list is almost endless.”

In addition, she said a range of private donors, from the Paul Allen Foundation to the Suquamish Tribe, have expressed interest in the novel concept.

“The key is, this makes us much more self-sufficient,” she said. “The South Kitsap community has always been very generous in its support, but this allows us to do even more for ourselves — and, in turn, more for the people who need our help.

“This is just a huge development for the community,” Hardison said, “and we’re completely jazzed about it.”

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