Gilbert’s Agritopia farming community working to reinvent the strip mall idea - East Valley Tribune: Business

Gilbert’s Agritopia farming community working to reinvent the strip mall idea

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Posted: Wednesday, April 10, 2013 8:07 am | Updated: 4:30 pm, Wed Dec 3, 2014.

Agritopia, an agriculturally-focused, multi-use community in Gilbert, is planning what’s shaping to be its largest project since its establishment. Epicenter at Agritopia will be a food-based shopping center established over an estimated 25 acres that aims to showcase local farmers and retailers in an innovative way.

Joe Johnston, originator of the Agritopia community and founder of local hot spots like Joe’s Real Barbecue, Liberty Market and Joe’s Farm Grill – the latter is located right on the Agritopia grounds – is at the forefront of the Epicenter project.

In a blog posted by Johnston in 2010, when the project idea was introduced, he stated that the “goal is to create a district that is characterized by passion, craft, quality and a sense of pride in the State of Arizona.”

Working alongside him is Agritopia project coordinator, Katie Critchley. She described Joe’s vision for Epicenter as “the future of strip malls.”

“He wants to break down the grocery store,” she said, “and rather see individuals honing their craft.”

That “craft” is key in the layout of Epicenter, where shoppers would shoppers would find locally-grown products in an environment that exhibits proud, passionate service.

Part of establishing this sort of environment, Critchley explained, is to avoid any national, big-name chains.

“Joe really wants the best of the best of Arizona,” she said. “We want new places and people that are in Arizona and want to grow their business in Arizona.”

In addition to the quality of products and service, project planners are discussing using a form of development called vernacular architecture to help draw visitors in. Critchley explained that the shopping center would consist of buildings shaped to represent the product being sold.

“For example, we might have a coffee shop that is shaped like a coffee pot,” she said.

Another concept vital to the design of Epicenter is agriculture. As a core value of the Agritopia community, agriculture will be represented in nearly every aspect of Epicenter, “emphasizing the importance of agriculture and what we can grow here,” Critchley explained.

Agritopia’s head farmer, Erich Schultz, says that the Farm at Agritopia will be very closely involved in the project, providing much of what is sold within Epicenter.

Currently, a great portion of Agritopia’s acreage is covered with orchards of citrus, apple, and peach trees, as well as large plots of farmland and resident gardens. In the process of building Epicenter, Schultz says a number of the farm’s citrus trees will be relocated throughout the shopping center. Epicenter will also include a number of newly-planted fruit trees and rooftop gardens.

The idea, Schultz explained, is that what is grown within the farm is exclusive to Agritopia residents, the Agritopia Farm Stand (a small farmer’s market held on weekends), and the shops and restaurants at Epicenter.

“We don’t distribute all over the place,” he said. “We want anything that’s grown here for Epicenter to either leave in people’s shopping bags or in their bellies.”

In addition to providing food for retailers, Epicenter will offer plots of farmland to restaurant owners who would like to grow their own food.

Agritopia resident Chris Maddis said that he and his family are excited to share their community with the new attraction.

“Right now we have some really good places to go in Gilbert,” he said. “But we don’t have a place where you can just be all day long and not have to leave. Epicenter will be that.”

Maddis and his family own their own plot in the community gardens at Agritopia where they grow their own fruit and vegetables. With the introduction of Epicenter, many visitors who have not experienced urban farming before can come in and gain a new understanding of agriculture, and Agritopia’s involvement in preserving it.

“I think bringing more people into the neighborhood for that reason is going to be good for our food industry,” Maddis said.

When planning for Epicenter began, the goal was to have business open by 2013. At this point, however, Johnston, Critchley and those working with them are patiently waiting for the right moment to put everything into action.

“As much as we would love for it to be here today, it has to be done right,” Critchley said.

She explained that all the necessary planning has been done, but their concern is now with making the project financially feasible for the small local businesses they would like to be involved.

We don’t want it to be another run-of-the-mill strip mall,” she said. “We want it to be a unique place that people want to come and visit and be a part of.”

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