Sunrise Project receives grant and rezoning approvals

After receiving preliminary rezoning approval and an $11,500 grant this week, the Sunrise Project continues to close in on its plans to revamp the former Sunrise Garden Center property, 1501 Learnard Ave. The site would house the project’s existing youth programming, as well as offer new after-school gardening programs for all grade levels, said project organizers.

“It would offer programming for kids in the neighborhood, so they have something constructive to plug into,” said Emily Hampton, the project’s executive director. “So they can learn not only about food in their community, but how to make a difference in their community.”

The approximately 3-acre site is located in the Barker neighborhood and within walking distance to several schools, making it a good location for an after-school program, Hampton said. The program will teach gardening and cooking skills, with an emphasis on community health, she said.

“When they help plant it, watch it grow, harvest it and help put it into a meal, they are really proud of it,” she said. “The hope is they take that excitement home and help with more gardening and cooking with their own families.”

The Sunrise Project already operates community programs at various locations, and LiveWell Lawrence awarded the project the $11,500 grant on Friday that will help pay operating expenses, Hampton said. The project has been fundraising since early this year, and the grant will enable more of the public donations to go toward the renovation of the former nursery’s property, which has been vacant for about two years and includes greenhouses and two buildings.

The project’s existing community cooking and gardening programs — Healthy Sprouts, Food Rocket, Lawrence Fruit Tree Project and Summer of Service — are open to age groups ranging from preschool to adults, and the new site would centralize them, Hampton said.

“We’re sort of an umbrella organization for all of these different programs, and we’re working to bring them all together and integrate them and provide new opportunities once we’re on the site,” Hampton said.

The plan is to renovate one of the existing buildings to house the after-school program, which would likely function as a drop-in program for students in elementary and middle school, Hampton said.

In addition, plans for the property include other uses: a tofu processing facility, seed store and retail space for a company that cooks and delivers healthy food. On Monday, the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Commission recommended approval of a request to rezone the site from residential to light industrial, which would allow for the facilities to operate there. Hampton said the nearby businesses could offer skill-building experiences for the after-school program, especially for high school students.

“The ultimate goal is really to empower people to take charge of their lives and be healthy in whatever way they define that for themselves,” she said, noting that one idea is to work with the businesses to offer student apprenticeships.

The project has already raised about $80,000 for its programming and operating costs and needs to raise about $50,000 more for the renovations to the site, Hampton said. A fundraising dinner is planned for Feb. 18, and donations can also be made through the Sunrise Project’s website.

The rezoning request will now be considered by the City Commission. If approved, renovations at the site would begin in early 2016, and the Sunrise Project could begin offering programming at the property by the summer, Hampton said.