Waterbury agency proposes fish farming operation

CAFCA | March 04, 2014 |

A local social service agency is turning to fish farming to feed its coffers as well as the hungry.

New Opportunities Inc. Director James Gatling presented his proposal to launch a major aquaponics operation called "Food 4 Thought" in an empty, contaminated watch factory on Cherry Street on Monday to the Board of Aldermen.

Partnering with University of New Haven and New Tech Haven, Gatling hopes to create a stable source of income for his agency, which now relies on government money to fund most of his programs that serve the region's needy.

Government funding is dropping at the very time that people need it most, said Gatling. That funding gap is what drove Gatling back to his roots, as a former scientist, to not only create income, but job training opportunities, too.

The renovation, which will begin with the demolition of a large rear garage as soon as the snow melts, will create 45 temporary construction jobs, Gatling said. The indoor farming operation will create 45 part- and full-time jobs, he said.

There are about 5,000 of these kinds of facilities across the country, he said. Most focus on production of tilapia, which is a popular species to eat in America, but is now shipped in from China and Taiwan, making it a good choice for local production.

It's not just about fish, Gatling said. The fish tank water is filtered and pumped into beds of lettuce and tomatoes, with the fish waste serving as fertilizer for the plants' roots. The clean water is circulated back into the fish tank.

The project includes the extraction of lead, asbestos, petroleum and radium from both the soil and buildings on the Cherry Street properties this spring after a historical consultant reviews the former home of a Timex factory.

The fishery would be built at 39 Cherry Street, part of a big complex of hulking, abandoned factory buildings that overshadow the city's North Square section.

New Opportunities' city headquarters is just a block away.

Although New Opportunities is a nonprofit organization, the aquaponics business will be taxable, Gatling said. He predicts the city will collect about $65,000 in annual taxes from the operation.

Gatling will partner with the Northwest Regional Workforce Investment Board to create a job training program at the indoor farm, providing opportunities for people to earn money while learning hydroponics and aquaculture skills, he said.

New Opportunities is using a cleanup grant that targets underused industrial sites, also called brownfields, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pay for a large share of the demolition and renovation.