Bonton Village, the new homeless-to-work proposal from the folks who created Bonton Farms, has cleared new hurdles in its quest to build a functioning farm and community destination in the heart of Lake Highlands. The City of Dallas approved extending Bonton’s option to acquire the 12.8 acres at 12000 Greenville between Forest Lane and LBJ. Conveyance of the land is expected within several months.
Mike Reinsel, Bonton Village’s new executive director, says the project will be transformational – for the neighborhood and for the people who find job, homes and hope within.
“What Bonton Farms has proven out is that the farm is the place for healing, a place of employment, an economic model as produce is bought – there are various parts to how the farm serves the community,” Reinsel says. “It will be different in Lake Highlands than Bonton because the people and the needs are different, so a big part of the front end of this work will be listening to the voices of the people that will be served and the people that will be serving. We started with community meetings with neighborhood associations and businesses and churches – all people who will be part of that story.”
Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Adam McGough is Bonton Village’s biggest cheerleader, sharing founder Daron Babcock’s story and vision with anyone who will listen.
“When I worked as a community prosecutor, Bonton was one of the most dangerous areas in the city,” recalls McGough. “You couldn’t come past the floodgates down there if you weren’t invited into the community. The transformation started when Daron opened up his house and his life and just tried to get people jobs. He did that, but people didn’t have transportation, or they got sick too often because they didn’t have healthy food options. It became a mission of problem solving. I remember the two liquor stores up the street were the only places residents could get something to eat – Cheetos and Funyuns, that was it. Daron said, ‘We’re going to build a market.’ He was banging his head against the wall with the city, but now it’s an oasis down here.”
Preliminary plans call for a 4-acre farm, plus a restaurant, coffee shop, community gathering areas, farmhouse and tiny houses for residents to move from crisis to thriving. Services for residents would include workforce training, onsite jobs and other services.
“What Daron has done brilliantly is create little economic engines – the café, the coffee house, the garden farm and market and several other micro businesses that offset 25-30% of the cost of the operation,” says Reinsel.
Before Bonton Farms, the neighborhood was infamous for producing Dallas’ roughest characters. They entered prison sporting “Bonton” and “007” tattoos, prompting former council member Carolyn Davis to change Bonton’s name, for a while, to Rochester Park.
“When I came down here, Bonton was a notorious place,” said Babcock. “For the last two years, Bonton has had the lowest crime rate in Southern Dallas.”
Babcock says Bonton Farms has never had a person reoffend in nine years, in part, because the program creates an environment providing the Social Determinants of Health for participants.
“This science basically says that when people are part of a community where they are known and belong, when they have meaningful work, when they have shelter enough like home that they get good rest, when they know where their next meal is coming from and they feel safe, they are happier, more productive, struggle less with mental illness and live longer. That’s everybody, not just the people we serve.”
The average person served by Bonton Farms is 38 years old and has never worked before. This year the project will pay $1.2 million in wages back to the neighborhood.
“When people come here and they don’t have anything to offer, it robs them of their dignity and hope,” says Babcock. When they come here and work, and it’s meaningful and purposeful, and they earn [pay or food and shelter], there’s a dignity that starts to happen. It’s like a lightbulb. These are people who were taking, either through public assistance or our jails or by receiving treatment in emergency rooms. Now they’re making money and paying taxes. That’s a huge swing.”
Drinking coffee on the Bonton Farms patio, Christie Myers imagines what it will be like when the farm setting is duplicated just a few miles from her Lake Highlands home.
“At any given time there are people down here from various walks of life, whether it is a group of women from North Dallas dining or people who live in the neighborhood working,” she says. “It has created an interesting ecosystem of people willing to shut down barriers.”
Clifton, who grew up in Bonton and now works in the café and serves as president of the Bonton HOA, agrees.
“On the weekends there’s not an empty seat at the coffee house or café, and that means people sit together who normally wouldn’t. That changes people,” Clifton says. “This project helps people dream again. A lot of people have lost their dream along the way.”