There is a new social enterprise forming on the Near West Side. Neighborhood residents – graduates of Northside UP’s workforce training programs – are creating artisan furniture from reclaimed timber. It is a complex yet elegant puzzle, crafted over several years from three interlocking pieces: the wood itself, a workforce training program, and collaborations between several local partners. The venture is largely the brainchild of Near West Side Initiative (NWSI) director, Maarten Jacobs, and Northside UP director, Dominic Robinson. By taking time to understand and develop the reclaimed wood’s value, NWSI, Northside UP and other local partners are also helping to unlock human potential on the Near West Side.
RECLAIMED, OLD-GROWTH WOOD
After years of neglect, the former Lincoln and Case Supply buildings on Otisco Street had become a Near West Side eyesore. Residents referred to these adjoining warehouse buildings as the “Berlin wall”: a physical and figurative impediment to progress in the community. In 2009, NSWI purchased and redeveloped the 100-year old buildings. Through the Syracuse Center of Excellence, the NWSI began careful deconstruction and renovation starting with the Lincoln Building, preserving the massive wood beams and columns from which the buildings were constructed. According to Zeke Leonard, Assistant Professor in Syracuse University’s School of Design, the wood is old-growth hemlock, spruce, and yellow pine. Based on a ring count, some of the trees were at least 150 years old when felled. “It is safe to say,” Leonard comments, “that these trees were alive long before Syracuse existed …before the USA was even a country. They were venerable grand dames of the countryside and they were felled in a way that we are unlikely to find now.”
As the buildings took on new life, Jacobs and Robinson began talking with friends, partners and neighborhood residents about how the wood could also take on a second life, and how it could play a part in the revitalization of the Near West Side.
Two years ago, the Near West Side Initiative and Northside UP began to work together to develop a way to address poverty and unemployment within the neighborhood. Green Train, a program of Northside UP and CenterState CEO, was known as one of the most successful workforce programs in the area but was operating solely on the Northside. Jacobs and Robinson worked out a deal to bring Green Train to the Near West Side in 2011. Four Green Train programs have since taken place on the Near West Side. About 50 neighborhood residents have completed the program and gotten jobs in construction, home weatherization and other emerging green industries. Despite the success of the program, questions loomed about how to sustain its costs.
An idea surfaced about the potential for Green Train graduates to develop products that could generate revenues for the program. Program instructor, Andrew Erickson, wondered whether grads could learn to design and build artisan-quality furniture, and in so doing, expand their employability and career prospects.
Possible answers to Erickson’s questions unfolded as NSWI, Syracuse University (SU), and Northside UP began to envision a social enterprise that would employ workforce program graduates to build unique furnishings from the materials discovered during deconstruction, while mentoring them in skill and career development. Leonard suggested that his Industrial Design students could create prototypes for the graduates to construct.
Meanwhile, Habitat for Humanity – a longtime partner of the NWSI and Green Train — loaned the project workshop space at its headquarters on the Near West Side. With prototypes from design students in hand, two recent Green Train Graduates and Near Westside residents, Luis Vilella and Pedro Ignacio Diaz Ramos, began working full time to set up shop, create jigs, and craft pieces from the timbers. Initial products ranged from book-ends and cheese platters to large museum-quality benches.
Janie Mills, graduate of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry Construction Management master’s program, has been contracted to manage the shop and business operations through December of 2013. With her help, Luis and Pedro will build upon the current model and products as NWSI, Northside UP and other partners further refine this new social enterprise.
Proceeds from sales will help to support the Green Train program. Future Green Train graduates will be offered paid roles in the workshop, honing craft and work readiness skills before entering the broader workforce as experienced craftspersons.
As Leonard comments, “celebrating the material that stood proudly in a forest for decades and then stood for so long inside the buildings and kept them standing, letting it have another life and another identity –and helping us teach Syracuse residents in the process– seems a perfect way to acknowledge the history and spirit of these long-dead trees.”
“Salt Works is a great experiment for us,” Robinson says. “Through it we believe that we have an opportunity to create meaningful employment opportunities within a green business, located within a low-income neighborhood. To do that, while generating funds for workforce programs, would be a huge breakthrough for our community.”
Enterprises like Salk Works can diversify organizations’ funding strategies while furthering their social mission. In our case, that mission is to build stronger, more sustainable communities in Syracuse and, eventually, to serve as a model for community economic development in other cities.
You can look forward to meeting with the Salt Works team and checking out their products this Saturday at the Salt Market.