Orange County tea house part of ‘new economy’ vision

Jan. 06, 2014 @ 12:40 AM

Standing in a field in Orange County planted with rows of grape vines, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, camellia plants, and elderberry, Tim Toben described a vision for a community-focused “new economy” in which friends and family supply loans and energy, and food and medicines are produced locally.

Toben is an entrepreneur and former Chapel Hill developer who lost acres of his own land and $5.2 million in investment money in a mixed-use development project called Greenbridge.
The approximately $62 million green project was designed to be a model for energy efficiency. But Toben said the bank wouldn’t lend any more money in 2010 to cover an approximately $1.6 million construction cost overrun, which he said is “pretty typical” amount for a project of that size. The contractor placed construction liens on the property, which halted the sales of condos. Bank of America started the foreclosure process and then sold the remaining project debt. The building is now under new ownership, and sales of the Greenbridge condos resumed.
As told by him in Lyle Estill’s book “Small Stories, Big Changes: Agents of Change on the Frontlines of Sustainability,” Toben saw about $10 million in profits from a $175 million sale of a database company he’d started earlier. He had invested in about 500 acres of land in western Orange County, but in paying off the Greenbridge debt, he lost all but 38.
He and his wife, Megan Toben, moved their home and a nonprofit educational farm operated by Megan, the Pickards Mountain Eco-Institute, to that land they still owned.
The farm is now equipped with solar panels for electricity and gardens for their own food. Seventy percent of their food comes from the property, Toben said.
“We get closer and closer each year,” Toben said, to their vision of sustainability and self-sufficiency.
To add to the list of what they can produce, Toben and his wife are now launching a plan to create a “nexus” for alternative medicine. They’re looking to open what they’re calling The Honeysuckle Tea House, where they will sell tea, herbs, smoothies and other items made from plants grown on the land.
The Tobens contributed land, and a Chinese-owned limited liability company contributed capital so they could launch an herb and berry garden. They agreed to dedicate the 16.5 acres for growing medicinal herbs, mushrooms and berries, with 10 percent of any profits going to the institute.
The rows of fruits and plants are already planted. Slated to open in March, the tea house is now under construction. It’s being built from trees that came from the field when it was cleared, old telephone poles that previously ran through the property, and recycled shipping containers. The project architect was Giles Blunden, who also designed progressive co-housing communities in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
“So my approach to the design is to use everything that’s here,” Blunden said of the construction materials, as he stood in front of the partially completed building. The shipping containers came from Norfolk, Va., but were at the end of their natural lives in the shipping world.
They make up the building’s foundation, he said, and are going to be used for drying the tea leaves.
The structure will have space for outdoor seating and will have an overhanging roof. Rainwater will be collected in a retention pond near the building, Toben said, and they’re planning to fill it with water lilies and fish.
Toben said they envision the tea house as a place where people can buy tea, smoothies and other products, where children can play in surrounding natural play-areas, and where adults can meet with staff herbalists in consultants and workshops to learn about herbs and other alternative medicines.
Two herbalists, Frances O’Halloran and Dana Simerly, have already been hired to prepare salves, teas and tinctures. Last week, they were working to prepare a salve for rashes or dry skin that was made using wild as well as some cultivated plants.
“It really is a dream come true to share our passion,” O’Halloran said, also arguing that plants, used in their entirety to treat ailments, can lead to fewer negative side effects in the body.
To pay for the tea house, about 80 percent of the total cost, or $80,000, has come from loans through the Slow Money NC movement, Toben said. The organizers are hoping to raise an additional $20,000 in a crowdfunding campaign through the website Kickstarter for the rest of the construction cost. So far, Toben said all of the cost of building the house has been community-financed, and he wants to see that continue. 
“We have always kind of resisted this idea of globalization -- that the big companies have the answers,” Toben said, explaining that as part of their beliefs in a new economy, they don’t want to be dependent on transportation systems, energy utilities, pharmaceutical companies, and food businesses.
Toben likened the Honeysuckle Tea House to “small roots and shoots” growing up through the pavement after the financial loss of Greenbridge. A friendship developed with one of the bidders in the bank’s fire sale of Greenbridge, who is now one of the partners in the project. That bidder also is with the Chinese company that contributed capital for the herb gardens and medicine fields with Toben’s new endeavor. 
“The eventual buyer of Greenbridge did indeed foreclose, so that was a total financial loss for us, but sometimes small roots and shoots grow up through the pavement,” Toben said in an email. “Such is the case with the Honeysuckle Tea House.”