Man works to transform old military tower into community garden

Jun 8, 2021

David Gilbert poses on top of the abandoned radar tower, overlooking Port Austin, June 4.
Credit Teresa Homsi

Since the 1980s, the Port Austin military radar tower has sat dormant.

During that time, its stairs rusted, rain soaked through the roof, mold took over the walls and a flock of pigeons made the abandoned tower their home. 

David Gilbert is a wind turbine technician with a dream --- the Bad Axe man hopes to transform the building into an indoor, community garden.

For Gilbert, this project is a matter of life and death.

“I hate to see older things thrown to the wayside or discarded just because this one person doesn’t want it,” Gilbert said. “Well, if you find the right person who wants it, even if you give it to them, it’s not dying a useless death.”

Gilbert said his motivation is rooted in wanting to save and repurpose a unique landmark.

The abandoned military radar tower in Port Austin on June 6
Credit Teresa Homsi

The tower is just one remaining part of the Port Austin Air Force Station, which was built after the start of the Korean War in 1951. The site was used to detect and intercept foreign aircraft until 1988 when it was officially retired.

Gilbert said he wants to turn the space, formerly used for war and weaponry, as a place for “regrowth” and community.

Gilbert saw the building on sale nearly 20 years ago. Since then, he had his mind set on turning the abandoned tower into a community garden - complete with vertical farming and aquaponics.

With the help of the former owner, Gilbert bought the property in 2012. Since then, he has poured his time, skills and even his 401 (k) into clearing, salvaging and rebuilding the tower.

Progress has been incremental, but Gilbert is determined.

“I’m a dreamer,” Gilbert said. “I would say 80% of the people in my life have said, ‘dude you’re crazy, this is a giant money pit.’ And I’m like, ‘you’re not wrong,’ but there’s so much potential.”

Currently, Gilbert has revived the elevator, fixed the power, installed new plumbing and freed the building of mold and pigeons.

The fourth floor of the military radar tower on June 6
Credit Teresa Homsi

Gilbert said he hasn’t received much support from the community, but he hopes the project, once complete, can unify people with a shared common space.

“I think people are so caught up in their own busy lives, they sometimes forget that other people need help, too,” Gilbert said. “If we can come back together as a community ... we would thrive.”

This story was produced as part of the Michigan News group internship. A collaboration between WCMU and eight newspapers. You can read the print version of this story in the June 10 edition of the Huron Daily Tribune.