Grow HQ started as a little germ of an idea in Michael Kelly’s head. Mick Kelly’s head had form for good idea germs. He’d successfully established GIY, a movement dedicated to promoting home grown food. He wanted the movement to grow and he needed to prove how easy and successful it could be. His own lifestyle was a great example of how that could work on a domestic level. However, Mick wasn’t in a position to bring hundreds of people a week out to his house to show them his polytunnels and introduce them to his chickens. At least not without doing serious damage to his marriage. The movement needed a showcase. It needed a living, breathing example of how it all worked. It had to be something that was self-sustaining and it had to be independent from Michael. Not because he’s a bad figure head, just in case the years of talking manure took their toll and he needed a period of quiet reflection in a monastery, whispering “garlic” softly to himself...
Mick imagined an entity with the ethos GROW, COOK, EAT as its core, that would be open to the public and would cater for and sustain the masses. Ok maybe not sustain the masses, it’s only open 9am to 5pm, but at least give the masses a gorgeous meal and a bit of inspiration for their lifestyle. GROW HQ would be like a fractal, a microcosm of the larger movement where every activity promoted by GIY would take place on one campus. A place where people could come and learn how to grow and cook food and that would break down the barriers between where food is grown and where it’s cooked and consumed.
He envisaged firstly a garden, where fresh produce is sown and harvested all year round. Then he saw a kitchen to prepare, to preserve and to cook that food. A café that would focus on serving only the freshest, seasonal veg that would be grown by GIY on the site. Importantly it would also be somewhere they could socialise, be well looked after and enjoy great food and good company. And of course buy seeds and a bag of compost on their way out. Lastly he imagined it all being financially self-sustaining so he could sleep at night without fear of ending up living in his polytunnel (it could happen yet).
The first step was approaching the council for land to build on. Mick had a romantic idea of a rural retreat, down a leafy lane, with fields as far as the eye could see and the nearest shop 4 hours away by penny farthing. So, pretty difficult for anyone to drop into for a quick coffee. He visited plenty of those types of sites but none were practical or appealing. Then the council showed him an odd 3-acre site, on the side of a roundabout, on a bypass, about 5 minutes from Waterford city centre. It was loathe at first sight. You couldn’t get further from the country idyll of Mick’s fantasies. But the potential of the site began to reveal itself slowly. 65% of the world’s population live in urban or suburban settings. They’re the ones who have the most to gain from a food education centre. The site being on a main road was an asset, it made it visible and accessible, to everyone (with over 30,000 cars a day passing by the front door). It was also clear that this particular site would put GROW HQ right at the heart of where people do their regular food shopping (with most of the major supermarket multiples right on our doorstep). In some ways it was the last place you’d expect to see food-growing happening, which made it all the more appealing.
The real clincher though, were the neighbours. University Hospital Waterford directly across the road, the site for the new hospice next door, and the Solas Centre for those affected by cancer, with GROW HQ right in the middle. They all treat people when they’re sick, and GIY are all about keeping people well, through food and knowledge. Mick could imagine anyone, a worried patient, or a tired nurse, a stressed health worker, walking across the road, through the garden, smelling the herbs, seeing the growth of the plants and the beauty of nature. He could picture them sitting in a bright, comfortable space, with friendly staff attending them, cheesy puns making them smile, relaxing with a cup of tea or nutritious bowl of soup. He imagined the people who could most benefit being the ones closest to GROW HQ, and that decided it.
The next step was a nerve wracking pitch to City Council to get the site. Mick dusted off the suit jacket and explained GIY’s vision for the project. It was a nervous time but the honesty, passion and value in what GIY were offering won the day, and the council (to their eternal credit) unanimously agreed to give GIY the land on a 100-year free lease.
With the project green-lighted Mick needed a project manager who would really 'get' the project and steer the ship over the coming years - in one of those random moments of synchronicity he met Tramore-based architect Anne Harpur at an event in Dublin and realised she was a kindred soul who understood what GIY was trying to achieve and shared our aims. Anne agreed to come on board to coordinate the project and lead the design and construction process on GIY's behalf. When time came to choose the architects three or four companies tendered for the job but Solearth Architecture stole the show. They walked in to the very first meeting with a scale model of their vision of GROW HQ. It was poured cement and wood clad, with an angled, grass covered roof and south facing café. It was exciting, attractive and ecological. They set the bar so high nobody could hope to match them. The decision was quickly made and the long, torturous planning permission process could begin (including meeting with the local community to explain the project). We won’t exaggerate, or dwell on it but suffice it to say once we’d filled out the application form, submitted the plans, dealt with objections, provided a vial of unicorn plasma and danced under a full moon at midnight we were on our way to building our new home.
Over two years after embarking on the project GIY was finally in a position to start fundraising which commenced in November 2013. Taoiseach Enda Kenny came down to Waterford to kick that off – Mick put on the suit jacket again. Over the following nearly three years, a range of funding options were explored and used, from grants to crowd funding, investors to bake sales, raffles to donations. We got support from philanthropic sources like the Tony Ryan Trust, the Arthur Guinness Funds and the One Foundation; corporate partners like Applegreen and grants from Bord Bia, the Department of Health, the Local Enterprise Office and more. Over 30 companies joined the GROW Circle, and in return for a donation to GROW HQ we would show their staff how to grow their own food and develop their own culture of food empathy. Over 200 GIYers from around Ireland dug deep and made a donation or sponsored a Sod on the green roof, or supported our crowd funding campaign. In the end we raised a phenomenal €1.4m for the project.
The suit jacket was on again just before Christmas 2015 when then-Tanaiste Joan Burton came to turn the sod on the building project, after we awarded the building project to local builder Tom O’Brien Construction. The building began to emerge from the ground. In March 2016 the glulam beams were put in place for the café and we had fun trying to pronounce the word ‘glulam’. In May, Mick and Eimear spent a laborious Saturday clearing stones from the market garden end of the site so we could start growing veg for the café. In May, the green roof went on and we pondered whether we needed to get a goat with a head for heights to keep the grass in check. In July GIY Waterford (including some of those who were there at the very first GIY meeting in September 2008 in Waterford City Library) came for their first site visit and Mick talked about the wheel of life, said ‘awesome’ alot and on the way home tried to stop himself from crying like a small baby.
During summer 2016 the recruitment for HQ began in earnest and the GIY office at Williamstown started to get very overcrowded indeed. The growing team of Head Grower Lucy Bell and Eimear Delahunty was quickly joined by Head Chef JB Dubois and Education Coordinator Hazel Tierney. The volume of decisions grew and became more urgent – what type of light fitting, what colour’s going on that wall, are we really going to put Japanese knotweed crumble on the menu?
Eventually GIY’s hair brained plan to build a mothership for GIYers had worked. The movement now has a place to call home (but they have to leave at night cause we’re still only open till 5pm).
Read about our café, gardens, shop and classes here and then come visit GROW HQ and see how we’re creating a food revolution. Between the hours of 9am and 5pm.