An updated rendering of the Vertical Harvest project. Courtesy / Vertical Harvest

Developers of the Vertical Harvest complex in downtown Westbrook say construction should begin in October and wrap up in mid-2023.

Vertical Harvest, a hydroponic greenhouse, plans to employ upwards of 50 people with mental disabilities and already is talking with local organizations about the jobs, company founders said.

Site work, including ground leveling, at the site of the Mechanic Street parking lot will wrap up this construction season. The vertical greenhouse will be built and completed in 2022 and the retail space, 60 apartments and parking garage will follow in 2023, according to developer Greg Day with TDB.

Day said they’re looking for food service or specialty provision stores for the retail space.  The apartments’ design and costs are still being worked out, he said.

The city expects the project, along with the work being done on Westbrook Common, to impact traffic and parking downtown. Saccarappa Park will be converted into 80 temporary parking spaces during construction.

It will take Vertical Harvest less than a month after completion of the 70,000-square-foot greenhouse to produce greens, said developer and co-founder Nona Yehia. The company will focus on specialty microgreens, avoiding competition with local farmers, she said.

“These microgreens grow anywhere from one to three weeks and (have) 40 times the nutritional equivalent of their adult counterparts,  Yehia said. “They are kind of like a Willy Wonka aspect to our farm.”

Vertical Harvest’s micro wasabi is popular for restaurant use and as retail item at their Wyoming location, she said.

Vertical Harvest also has a greenhouses in Jackson Hole Wyoming, where the majority of their employees have disabilities.

Johnny Fifles, a 31-year-old man with autism, is a senior associate in microgreens at the Jackson Hole location. Before Vertical Harvest, he worked at different jobs, he said, but now he’s proud of his work.

“It was a welcome change of pace for me,” Fifles said. “I used to work at an inn and had to do laundry. It was tiresome.”

His job at the greenhouse includes seeding, harvesting, delivering produce and guiding tours.

“It has been incredible to see Johnny grow into the role and work on his development and connections,” Vertical Harvest co-founder Caroline Estay said.

The city will be paying $15 million for the parking garage through an agreement using tax revenue from the project, City Economic Development Director Dan Stevenson said, meaning there will be no direct impact on taxpayers. Developers will take on $40 million of the cost and pay for maintenance of the garage which will continue to be a municipal lot.

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