"Owning Your Own Job Is A Beautiful Thing."
-- Evergreen Cooperative Laundry Operations Manager Medrick Addison
One of the main draws of the ACE conference was the opportunity to tour the much-touted Evergreen Cooperative. The Evergreen Cooperative Corporation has four entities: Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, Ohio Solar Company, Neighborhood Voice Newspaper and Green City Cooperative Growers, a commercial food production greenhouse.
The idea for the laundry was to have a cooperative that would fill the laundry needs of anchor businesses in the city: the Cleveland Clinic, university hospitals and nursing homes.
"This is the greenest laundry in the Northeast [Ohio] and I believe in all of Ohio," CEO Jim Anderson told the conference. ?Green' and ?laundry' do not often go together," he said.
The plan is to hire 50 residents who live in the University Circle or "inner city" part of Cleveland who will eventually become co-op owners. They will earn a living wage, have benefits and the opportunity to accumulate assets with equity ownership, Anderson said.
The project was developed by the Ohio Employee Ownership Center at Kent State University, the Democracy Collaborative based at the University of Maryland, ShoreBank Enterprise in Cleveland and the Cleveland Foundation. The project secured $5.8 funding: $1.5 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the City of Cleveland, $1.8 in New Markets tax credits, $750,000 from the Cleveland Foundation and $1.5 million from two banks.
The Evergreen Cooperative Development fund has a goal of $50 million. It would provide seed capital for other cooperatives.
The laundry and the solar business has only been open for business since October ---for about nine months. The laundry has 15 employees and expects to hire 35 more by the end of the year. Sixty percent of the contracts for the business to break even are in place.
Cooperative Solar has 20 employees. School children write for the Neighborhood Voices about the cooperatives and other activities. The Cooperative Growers cooperative is not yet up and running. but Anderson said that it will be growing lettuce that is usually trucked in from Arizona and California. "We're going to stop that carbon burn," he said.
On the first day, of the conference the group that boarded the red trolley car were very excited to be going to Evergreen. We all were curious about this huge cooperative project that has garnered so much mainstream press. The facility is a light yellow building that looks small from the outside. It has a blue awning and a three blue, green and white mural that makes one think of water and the Earth. The "green" message is visually obvious.
A trolley full of us arrived at Evergreen and then had to split in two. One group walked next door to Ohio Solar, and the other toured the laundry.
Operations Manager Medrick Addison and Technical Manager Keith Parkham led the tour of the laundry, They showed us machines that hold 150 pounds of linen. The workers never touch the laundry, they said, until after it comes out of the dryer. Both water and heat is recycled. The building is not air-conditioned and our guides were sweating as they talked. Many on the tour felt like we were in a sauna.
Worker-owners have a six month trial period. If they are voted in by the current workers, then 50 cents an hour for 3 years is taken from their earnings for the buy-in. Patronage is 10 percent of the profits. They get training from Ohio Employee Ownership Center in reading balance sheets, and other financial issues, and in safety.
Currently they have four worker owners and are on their second round of weeding out employees, they said. But interest is high. At a job fair 2 ½ months ago, they received between 600 and 700 applications. Workers have a six month probationary period. Addison recently completed his probation.
"We're trying to bring in people who will be an all-around asset," Addison said.
"I knew from the first day, I was going to be a part of this," said Parkham., who along with Addison, helped clear the 14-acre land of weeds and debris. "We were doing anything to get this thing going."
Anderson, the CEO, said the laundry has a multi-stake holder Board that includes Evergreen Cooperative Corporation, Providence Hospital, but no lenders.
"The whole purpose of the board is to make sure the place doesn't get demutualized, "Anderson said.
Next door is the Ohio Cooperative Solar. Their 20 employees currently install solar panels on the top of buildings in the city. Like the laundry, their goal is to have 50 employees. They are using stimulus money from the government to train certifiable installers. One thousand are needed to meet state mandates, said Steve Kiel, president of Ohio Cooperative Solar.
"We will have a critical mass of installers," Kiel said.
"These for-profit businesses work only if they make money," he said. Ohio Solar intends to be flexible to change tacks and re-invent if necessary to succeed.
"We're babies," Kiel said. "We're trying to figure out what we're will do as teenagers and adults. We really like the Mondragon model...The Evergreen Cooperative Corporation is the MCC [Mondragon] here. We're thinking of land trusts, Evergreen Business Services, which provides back office accounting services for other companies."
Some observations of people on the tour were that that it appeared that the project had little community buy-in or support. In addition, one wonders how much more training the workers will be getting on becoming owners.