Evergreen Cooperatives Information Conference

By Larry Dunn
Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center, February, 24, 2013 

In a trip initiated by the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center, fifteen people from Colorado traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, in January  to learn about the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative, an economic development model being launched in low-income neighborhoods of Cleveland. Participants included representatives of the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center, Denver Foundation’s Strengthening Neighborhoods program,  Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Cooperative Development CenterAsset-Based Community Development InstituteRevision InternationalLiveWell ColoradoExtreme Community MakeoverVeterans to Farmers,Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute and Dunn & Phillips LLC.

After arriving the night before, on Tuesday January 15 we started the day with a presentation from four principals from the Ohio Employee Ownership Center (OEOC): Roy Messing,  Interim Director, Jim Anderson, Senior Program Coordinator and former CEO of the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, Bob Cohen and Jay Simecek. The talk focused on their work with succession planning. In their experience, outreach to business owners in regard to succession planning is challenging, because many are reluctant to make public their interest in retirement.

We then travelled to the offices of the Evergreen Cooperative Corporation, located near the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry in the Glenville neighborhood. There we met with Ted Howard, the founding Executive Director of The Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland, who directs the Collaborative’s partnership with The Cleveland Foundation on the Evergreen Cooperative Greater University Circle Initiative. Ted explained the concept of the Initiative is a commitment from the anchor institutions of hospitals and universities in Cleveland’s “Greater University Circle” to buy from new worker-owned businesses in the core city, it’s principle being “Live Local, Buy Local, and Hire Local.” The relationship between anchor institutions and economic development projects in the areas where those institutions exist enable neighborhoods to create wealth and improve the quality of life for all.

We also learned that these projects are costly. Millions have been spent to create cooperative laundry, greenhouse, and solar panel installation businesses. However, the success of these developments can serve as a model for other cities, as well as improving the quality of life in Cleveland’s disadvantaged communities. The initiative plans for as many as 50 such co-ops that will provide approximately 1,000 jobs for worker-owners. The multiplier effect of local business and the money exchanged within neighborhoods can provide significant economic benefit in the larger community.

Cecil Lee, the CEO of the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry(ECL), gave us a tour of the laundry facility. As a green operation, it uses one-third of the water compared to the typical industrial laundry. Employing around 50 workers, ECL is planning to expand its facility in the near future due to increased demand. It employs local residents who “face barriers to employment” (felons). Cecil described ECL’s local housing incentives, which helps employees to buy their first home in the local neighborhoods. We met with two of the workers who described their participation in the co-op, such as approving membership for workers who have completed their probationary period.

We then toured the 3.25 acre Green City Growers Cooperative (GCG) greenhouse. CEO Mary Donnell showed us the hydroponic system which was just beginning to yield lettuce. The goal is to provide 3 million heads of lettuce and 300,000 pounds of herbs annually. Currently, all lettuce in Ohio is shipped in from New Mexico and California. It is projected that the GCG greenhouse will “almost certainly become the largest urban food-producing greenhouse in the country.” Needless to say, we were impressed by the sheer size of the facility.

We had lunch at the nearby Bridgeport Cafe, a green restaurant/cooking demonstration center in the Kinsman neighborhood, often referred to as the “Forgotten Triangle”. As a food desert, even fast food chains had declined to open stores there. Timothy Tramble, the executive director of Burton, Bell, Carr Development, Inc., gave a talk on gaining support from the local residents during the efforts to create the center. He said he had been criticized for “bribing” local residents to attend meetings with raffle tickets, etc, but pointed to the fact that during construction there was zero vandalism. He cited the local councilwoman, who was present during our visit, as being instrumental with the project’s success. Interestingly, her last name is “Cleveland.” She gave her regrets about the Broncos’ loss to the Ravens.

We then travelled to theRid-All Green Partnership in the heart of the “Forgotten Triangle.” Rid-All’s urban agricultural and youth training center was founded by three childhood friends, using the Will Allen (of Milwaukee) urban agriculture model. Founder Randell McShepard described the site as a former illegal toxic dump that was “a place to dump dead bodies”.  A worm composting operation, using wood chips, leaf hummus and leftovers donated by local food banks, produces compost which sells for $85/cubic yard. An aquaponic system is used to raise tilapia, which is sold to local chefs at $7/lb. Small scale demonstration greenhouses grow vegetables year-round. To reach the urban youth, Rid-All has also commissioned a comic book series, clothing, and plays!

Tom O’Brien, Program Director of Neighborhood Connections, an affiliate organization of the Cleveland Foundation, then took us on a tour of the Greater University Circle neighborhood. After driving through the “disinvested” neighborhoods of East Cleveland, we drove back through the affluent neighborhood of Shaker Heights, and the Hough district, scene of the disasterous race riots of 1966. Cleveland’s population has declined by over 50% over the last decades. The “Greater University Circle” area itself, home of the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospital, Case Western Reserve University, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, was impressive, and stands in stark contrast to its surroundings.  Tim was a great tour guide, demonstrating his love of Cleveland with his narrative and anecdotes.

The next morning, January 16, we had breakfast with George Cheney Ph.D, a noted author and researcher of Spain’s Mondragon Cooperatives, now working with OEOC as their expert on Mondragon. He has visited Mondragon many times and talked about its support of the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative in Cleveland. Cheney reported that The Mondragon Corporation, now active in over 20 countries, has had to adapt to the global economic downturn while retaining its workforce and cooperative principles.

At the offices of the the Cleveland Foundation, we met with India Pierce Lee, Program Director for Neighborhoods, Housing and Community Development, and Walter Wright, Project Director of the Greater University Circle Community Wealth Building Initiative. India noted that developing and maintaining the relationship between the city, anchor institutions and the community/worker/owners is a continuing effort and has a variety of benefits.  The CEOs and others from these large institutions are serving on Evergreen’s board and are visiting the cooperative businesses. These and other activities are important and lead to improved relationships between the institutions and the underserved communities in which they exist. India said the key to dealing with large institutions is to find the individuals within them who care and are “passionate” about their role in the community.

Jan Thrope, founder of Inner Visions of Cleveland, talked about the plight of Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods, as well as her efforts to publicize the neighborhood community improvement projects that are being conceived, initiated, and driven by its residents. Among the stories in her recent book, “Inner Visions: Grassroots Stories of Truth and Hope,” Jan writes about working with a young boy who developed stuttering after witnessing the traumas of his surroundings and retreated to his imagination of a safer environment. The book has been made into an oral history play by a local playwright and director.

Tracey Nichols, Director of Cleveland’s Department of Economic Development,  was firm in her view that city involvement in economic development is required, in addition to that of neighborhoods and anchor establishments. The City of Cleveland has been integral to the Evergreen cooperative movement.  Tracey cited examples of how she works around the city’s bureaucracy to support local initiatives.  She suggested that following some meetings, participants should socialize in “pub crawls” as a way of growing relationships. Interestingly, the Mondragon co-ops were organized 60 years ago by a Catholic priest with locals in a bar as a consequence of discussions about possible solutions to the the depressed economic condition of the Basque region of Spain.

Tom O’Brien ended our journey to Cleveland by offering his creative networking strategies as an alternative approach to community-based economic development. Rather than a “top-down” approach, initiated by foundations and anchor institutions, Tom prefers working within communities to determine needs and preferences through networking meetings with all players, from local residents to CEO’s. He believes that this “network” form of community development is absolutely necessary for the long-term transformation of low-income communities into vibrant local economies.

In Cleveland, we learned that funding has and continues to be provided from many sources, including major institutions, both public and private, city, state, and the federal government.The Denver participants realized that financial resources will be required to develop cooperatives and improve local economies in our city. We will need to create wide-spread partnerships to finance developing neighborhood economies and co-ops like Evergreen.

We also found that the amount of creativity and innovation forged through new initiatives, networking and cooperative principles in Cleveland was astounding. The people at the Cleveland Foundation, which had been funding projects for many years without satisfactory results, has discovered that new approaches to economic development are achieving much greater success.  We of the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center are grateful to the hosts and presenters of Cleveland and their generous gift of time and experience. We intend to use what we’ve learned to help create cooperative economic development models that reflect the needs and resources of our own communities in Denver and Colorado.


Check out our Cleveland-Evergreen photo album! 

33 participants/hosts/presenters are name-tagged,

and 10 locations are mapped! 


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