The ambitious Goodwill Lake Oconee GA farm project

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Goodwill Industries hopes its new operating farm in Columbia County will benefit Helms College culinary students and consumers who enjoy farm-to-table food.

Now seeds are being planted for a much larger agricultural project to further fund the charity’s philanthropic mission.

Stemmed by part of a $ 10 million donation from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott last December, Goodwill Industries of Middle Georgia and CSRA have a contract to purchase a former 71-acre dairy farm on the shores of Lake Oconee.

2020:Ex-Wife of Amazon Founder MacKenzie Scott Offers $ 10 Million to Augusta-area Goodwill

The Plan: Establish a new Helms College campus built around a lakeside complex that encourages agrotourism and provides students with applied learning in culinary arts and hotel management.

On June 24, representatives from Goodwill approached the Putnam County Planning and Zoning Commission with plans for Helms Farm. The project’s renderings include not only Goodwill’s conventional retail spaces, but also university buildings, a grocery store, apartments, vacation villas, a spa, and a hotel – all built around a half-dozen farm plots that would grow specialty products for state restaurants.

Until 1996, the area between Lake Oconee and Aiken, South Carolina, was the largest stretch east of the Mississippi River that did not have a Goodwill presence, said James K. Stiff, chairman of the Helms College and Goodwill Industries of Middle Georgia and CSRA. That year, a Goodwill outlet opened in Augusta on Peach Orchard Road.

Helms College, the post-secondary school affiliated with Goodwill, started in Macon in 2007 – named after Goodwill founder Reverend Edgar Helms. It opened its Augusta campus in 2012 with around 20 culinary arts students and an attached 100-seat restaurant called Edgar’s Grille.

This restaurant; the downtown rooftop restaurant Edgar’s Above Broad; and the leadership of the members-only Pinnacle Club helps form Edgar’s Hospitality Group, made up of employees of the Helms’ School of Hospitality and Culinary Arts who take what they learn in the classroom and apply it on the job.

James K. Stiff, president of Helms College and Goodwill Industries of Middle Georgia and CSRA, points to a back wall of the building formerly occupied by the label and dance school Social Inc. Helms plans to build a bakery in commercial quality in space.

The jobs include preparing gourmet meals with ingredients purchased from farms within a 50 mile radius of Augusta.

“But we’re struggling to afford to do this to break even,” Stiff said. Heirloom tomatoes and other store produce may cost more to acquire.

Around this time, an idea developed, as they sometimes do, on a long drive to work.

“Myself and other Macon executives go back and forth from Macon to Augusta every week as we go here to help scale up Augusta’s operations,” Stiff said. “So there is all this fertile land that we see when we drive. between Macon and Augusta around the lake area, and we kept looking and saying “What if we develop a farm with a commercial agribusiness dimension?” And if we develop this farm in the middle between Macon and Augusta, then we could ship things east and west almost equidistant, plus Atlanta, which would be roughly the same distance about an hour away. North West.

Wrights Farm in Columbia County aims to do this, but on a smaller, more local scale. Helms Farm would have “things you won’t necessarily find in your average grocery store – things chefs would want to buy to exceed customer expectations,” Stiff said. “Also, there is a niche market, and we could sell directly to restaurants and resorts and so on. ”

Students would be there to learn, he said, like aspiring leaders. Helms has positioned itself to satisfy a growing interest in quality food at a time when many of the country’s top culinary schools have closed their doors, due to low enrollment and high tuition fees.

“We want the students to come in contact with the earth because food doesn’t grow on a Sysco truck, and we want to show them this whole process from the earth to the kitchen and understand all the nutrients and health benefits of grow and harvest food and prepared properly, ”Stiff said.

Previously reported:Augusta-area organizations receive $ 20 million in donations from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott

Campus visitors could participate in the agri-tourism component of campus, much like people visit California wine country on multi-day excursions. Cooking and gardening lessons could be offered.

“You can choose whatever things you want in your salad and take them to Edgar’s lakeside restaurant and have them prepared for you,” Stiff said.

Of Scott’s $ 10 million donation, $ 2 million will cover the cost of the lakeside land. An additional $ 2.5 million will fund Goodwill projects in Augusta, including building a commercial grade bakery for Helms students to produce gourmet bread and pastries for Edgar’s facility and for sale to other restaurants and shops.

Michael Romano, recently hired to help lead the staff at Edgar’s Hospitality Group, is an executive pastry chef with experience in four-star restaurants that he will bring to the classroom and to an upcoming Helms affiliate called Edgar’s Bakehouse. which should open in several days. .

While Goodwill typically relies on its second-hand retail stores to maintain its budget, it is embarking on a local fundraising campaign to help fund the early stages of new growth both on the Augusta campus and on the proposed lake campus.

Among the donors is an anonymous Atlanta foundation that has pledged a “challenge grant” of $ 750,000, Stiff said. If the first phase fundraiser falls within $ 750,000 of her goal, she will pay the rest. The goodwill is about $ 695,000 of the amount to trigger the grant, he said.

The campaign is “so that socially conscious people can help magnify the MacKenzie Scott gift,” Stiff said.

He cited the “great paradox” of having some of Georgia’s wealthiest properties on Lake Oconee, with multi-million dollar homes and a Ritz-Carlton resort hotel, while “some of the poorest areas of Georgia “are found in Greene and Putnam counties. .

“So we wish we could be in the middle to help rich people be able to work through Goodwill to give a helping hand to less rich people so that they can experience a greater part of America Dream, and they can become the talent needed for hospitality and healthcare in the lake area, ”said Stiff.


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