New England News
6:21 pm
Wed March 26, 2014

Worker-owned Upholstery Shop Brings Jobs To Poor Neighborhood

A community partnership is promoting an old business model – the worker- owned cooperative – as a way to revitalize the poorest neighborhoods of Springfield, Massachusetts.

Alex Guevara of Springfield works to upholster the back of a restaurant booth at the Wellspring Upholstery Cooperative.
Alex Guevara of Springfield works to upholster the back of a restaurant booth at the Wellspring Upholstery Cooperative.
Credit WAMC

An upholstery shop on the third floor of a century old factory building in Springfield’s South End neighborhood is the first business venture launched by the Wellspring collaborative.  Formed in 2011 it is a unique partnership of large local employers such as hospitals and universities, community groups, labor organizations, nonprofits and government agencies.

Frank Robinson, executive director of Partners for A Healthier Community, one of the coordinating organizations, said the goal of Wellspring is to create entry- level jobs and business ownership opportunities for the unemployed and underemployed in Springfield. 

" We envision a network of cooperatives where folks who are living in our neighborhoods come to work at their own businesses."

The strategy is to develop worker-owned ventures that can supply the demands for goods and services by the region’s big employers including Baystate Health, UMass Amherst and Western New England University, according to Fred Rose, co-director of the Wellspring Collaborative.

" They buy billions of dollars in goods and services and less than 10 percent comes from the local economy, so we are building companies to serve that market."

Wellspring is developing worker-owned companies to assure the jobs stay in the city and to give local residents – not faraway investors—the profits from the venture.

" That profit-sharing piece is critical to helping people move out of poverty and into the middle class," said Rose.

Wellspring Upholstery Cooperative started up about two months and has done about $25,000 in business including jobs for the Berkshire Dining Commons at UMass Amherst and the mayor’s office in Westfield. Evan Cohen, the manager, says there is strong growth potential.

" We have done the market research. There is work out there and we are going to go after it all over the state."

Three people work at the cooperative now. After an apprentice period during which time they will learn the craft and how to manage the business they will become owners.  As many as a dozen future-owners may be hired in the first year.

Bob Demerjian said he had been unemployed for some time and was down on his prospects for landing a job until he saw an ad for the upholstery cooperative.  He said he was attracted by the trade and the uniqueness of the Wellspring opportunity.

" For me personally it is a great opportunity for me to be part of it and for it to grow for the community and become something that will provide a lot of great benefits for a lot of people."

Emily Kawano of the Center of Popular Economics said the success of worker-owned cooperatives in such places as Cleveland, Ohio and Spain prove the business model is a viable economic development strategy.

" The economic meltdown in 2008 shook the confidence of people in the mainstream economic model and people are looking for other ways of providing decent jobs."

Other businesses being explored by Wellspring include a greenhouse to supply fresh fruits and vegetables and a laundry.

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