Rick Williams is a software engineer by trade, but he’s also a man with a vision: the former Roanoke City Planning Commission member wants his Lick Run Farm and community market to help turn a “food desert” in northwest Roanoke into a catalyst for development. Williams, who spent ten years on the Planning Commission before his tenure was not renewed at the end of 2013, would like to see developers create an urban village, something akin to Grandin Village.
Lick Run Farm is actually a three-acre plot that Williams and volunteers have been planting for the past several years, growing vegetables that he sells at a roadside stand every Saturday afternoon in season from 2 to 5 pm. Lick Run also has a booth at the Grandin Village Farmer’s Market until noon on Saturdays.
Williams is renovating an 1890’s-era house on the same plot of land at 1623 10th Street, which will house the farmer’s market – and Williams – once it is remodeled. He currently lives off Williamson Road. Northwest Roanoke, in the area where Lick Run is located, has been designated as one of Roanoke’s food deserts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – meaning fresh, healthy foods are not easily accessible or affordable.
Williams said many local residents, in an area that tends to be of lower income, no longer have local stores where they can find healthy foods and if they don’t have transportation, often find themselves crossing busy roads to shop. That’s where an urban village, if developers found the area attractive enough, could fill the void.
“The city’s comprehensive plan talks about village centers as organizing principles for neighborhoods,” said Williams, “and this activity here is aimed at creating that type of energy that could lead to village center development in the Washington Park neighborhood.” Those village centers, added Williams, can be “a really strong focus for encouraging people to move into the neighborhood that surrounds that village center.”
Williams isn’t sure his plan will work but he’s willing to take a stab at it. He’s hoping that eventually other people who may be growing vegetables in their gardens will seek to sell them at the Lick Run market as well. “That’s very much what we would like to see.” Already some produce from the Saturday morning Grandin Village market makes it’s way to Lick Run to be sold later that day.
Williams salutes the people that toil away with him, tending to the vegetables. “I am very dependent on the kindness of volunteers and interns – I’m sort of the Blanche Dubois of the local food movement,” he jokes, “I’ve always been dependent on the kindness of strangers. Without [their] work this would be almost impossible.”
His work on the Planning Commission in revising Roanoke’s comprehensive or community plan whetted Williams’ appetite for the village center concept in northwest Roanoke. There are other food deserts in southeast Roanoke as designated by the USDA, according to Williams. “The village center concept …is something I very strongly supported and pushed for.” Williams invited Roanoke delegate Sam Rasoul to Lick Run Farm several weeks ago to tour his operation and address the food desert issue.
Now he wants to see if on-site agriculture and a public market spur that village center development. “At this point I don’t have any idea if it’s going to work but I’m on the path, and I’m going to continue on that path. We’ll see what comes of it.”
By Gene Marrano