A sign erected on the RecoveryPark property after a Metro Times cover story about the troubled farm is emblazoned with the words "Trust and believe."
The leader of Detroit's RecoveryPark — a multimillion-dollar urban farm and media darling that was supposed to provide jobs for formerly incarcerated people and has since fallen into disrepair — has been on the defensive ever since Metro Times reported on the collapse of the project
earlier this year.
In the weeks since our May cover story, RecoveryPark has cleaned up the blighted property located near the abandoned Chene-Ferry Market on the east side, and even erected a sign that seems to address the controversy emblazoned with the words "Trust and believe."
Founder Gary Wozniak maintains that the farm — which laid off almost all of its employees in early 2020, before the pandemic, after three investors pulled out — is still alive, and is working toward finding new investors to raise a goal of $13 million in order to build a glass greenhouse to continue the project.
But behind the scenes, Wozniak has been working to silence and attack his critics
, some of whom were former associates or employees of the project.
That now includes real estate broker Darin McLeskey, who helped RecoveryPark acquire more than 300 properties from the city of Detroit for the 100-acre farm, and who RecoveryPark accused of "defamation" in a lawsuit filed last month.
But in court documents filed earlier this month, McLeskey denies the defamation accusations, and in turn accuses RecoveryPark of misrepresenting its charitable mission — and alleges that RecoveryPark planned to sell the properties, which it received from the city of Detroit at a discount, for a profit.
In the documents, McLeskey says he got into business with RecoveryPark because he believed it was a charitable business whose goal "was to acquire real property, develop it into urban farm sites, and then employ individuals who have the most difficulty finding work, including those with criminal records and those recovering from substance abuse issues."
However, "[eventually], facts came to light that indicate that Recovery Park would not in fact use the properties for their intended charitable purposes but instead was going to 'flip' the properties to a real estate speculator for profit," the documents state.
According to the court documents, McLeskey resigned from his role with RecoveryPark in April, 2021 after he learned that it had moved to sell the properties to Matthew Tatarian, one of the largest landowners in the city, "whose involvement with this project would be totally at odds with the charitable intention of Recovery Park," the documents state, adding, "[defendants] believe that Tatarian’s interest in this project is being deliberately concealed."
The documents also state that "Defendant McLeskey has been in contact with representatives of the City of Detroit, who have expressed objections to having any of these properties conveyed if there is any possibility that Matthew Tatarian, or anyone affiliated with him, will acquire ownership of the subject properties."
In the documents, McLeskey and his representation also say the defamation accusations should be dismissed because RecoveryPark's lawsuit does not specifically name what the alleged defamation is.
"The 'exact language' of the defamation is not cited, nor do Plaintiffs tell the Court to whom the false statements were published, when, where or under what circumstances," the documents state. "Plaintiffs don't even tell us which of the Plaintiffs has been defamed!"
McLeskey declined to comment on the litigation.
"I can't really comment Lee, but our response largely speaks for itself," McLeskey writes in an email to Metro Times
Wozniak founded RecoveryPark about a decade ago after serving time in federal prison in the 1980s and '90s, which he said made it difficult for him to find employment. He was sentenced for stealing more than $800,000 from investors when he worked as a stockbroker, and blamed his drug addiction for mismanaging the funds. The farm was to employ at least 100 formerly incarcerated workers, but never did.
Documents obtained by Metro Times
indicate RecoveryPark has more than $5.5 million in debt.
Wozniak did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This story was updated to include information on who RecoveryPark planned to sell the property to.
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