Last month I spent two-plus days in Grand Rapids at the annual conference of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. BALLE emphasizes a local approach to economic and community development that harnesses the power of local dollars and local entrepreneurial talent to revitalize communities and grow incomes. I gained a huge number of insights from the conference, which I will be sharing as I continue to organize the pages of notes that I took.
The first of these insights comes from Cleveland, where a collaborative effort is focused on a challenged neighborhood. Evergreen Cooperatives is focusing on fostering employee ownership in the University Circle area on the east side of the city. The six neighborhoods in the initiative are home to 43,000 residents with a median income of $18,500. Evergreen was launched in 2008 by a group of local institutions, including the Cleveland Foundation, the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University, and the municipal government. The mission is to stabilize and revitalize the area by fostering employee-owned worker cooperatives that employ local residents and sell goods and services to the anchor institutions. This keeps money not only within the community, but within the neighborhood, leveraging its impact.
Organizers project that an initial complex of ten companies will generate roughly 500 jobs over the next three to five years. The co-op businesses are focusing on the local market in general and the specific procurement needs of “anchor institutions,” i.e., “the large hospitals and universities that are well established in the area and provide a partially guaranteed market.” All businesses are employee-owned and operated. One of the first was Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, which serves healthcare institutions from a LEED silver building and uses environmentally responsible laundry methods that use less than 30% of the water and far less energy than typical commercial laundries. Ohio Cooperative Solar installs, owns, and maintains solar panels on institutional buildings. Green City Growers operates a 230,000 square-foot greenhouse in the neighborhood. Evergreen continues to seek business plans for additional businesses.
It seems that cities everywhere ought to take a look at this model. By keeping money within the community, local institutions increase their impact by supplying economic opportunity in addition to jobs. Here in Columbus, an initiative like this could help to address the region’s much lower-than-average rate of business formation, pointed out in Community Research Partners’ Benchmarking Central Ohio report. One important emphasis of an Evergreen-like initiative ought to be providing support and counseling to would-be entrepreneurs — perhaps engaging the local Small Business Development Center or a local university.