Treasure in the Ruins: Building Value in the Tri-State
Easter Seals TriState operates packaging and fulfillment centers that provide practical skills to individuals with disabilities so they can work in the community. In the early 2000s, with the growth of automation and outsourcing to foreign countries, it became increasingly difficult to find enough work to keep Easter Seals profitable. At the same time, the agency wanted to expand the breadth of its training opportunities to include disadvantaged workers transitioning from public assistance to employment. After researching many business models, leaders came across a solution that offered work training in the high-growth areas of construction and retail that could return revenue back to Easter Seals.
Building Value was the result. Begun in 2004, the task at first was to gather product − lumber, siding, doors, cabinetry, sinks, bathtubs, toilets, carpet, and banisters − from individuals and businesses, then sell them back to the public at discount prices. The program later start- ed “soft-stripping,” or taking salvageable products from houses being remodeled and allowing the owner to record it as a charitable donation. In 2009 Building Value started deconstructing entire houses.
The progression was logical − and drastic. But “it was consistent with the mission of Easter Seals in providing work training, and also with the mission of Building Value in taking materials and repurposing them,” explains David Rich, Director of Building Value. “We’ve become much more efficient at it. Instead of doing five houses a year we deconstructed 25 houses in 2014.”
Building Value operates as a means of training its retail and construction employees so they can transition to other jobs in the community. “We are trying to make them good employees and then get them employed somewhere else. We have to keep our turnover rate as high as possible,” says Rich.
A deconstruction associate in Building Value learns trade skills, tool handling, and safety procedures. If successful, they emerge from the program with the qualifications needed for entry-level placement in the building industry. “We send them to the hardest, dirtiest jobs and we know if they are coming back day after day for a minimum wage these people are really doing this to better their lives,” Rich says.
After completing the program, Building Value employees move to businesses such as Messer Construction, the Nelson Stark Co., Cincinnati Heating and Air, or the Electrical Workers Union. From there they might go to work as subcontractors, electricians, or plumbers.
Among other partnerships, Building Value has collaborated with the Cincinnati Zoo to deconstruct homes in Avondale. “There is a huge vacancy rate, the zoo is paying fair-market values for the houses, and we are deconstructing them in environmentally responsible ways while putting people to work,” Rich says. “And it’s not costing anyone money. What is not to like about that?”
Because government funds are decreasing for programs like Eas- ter Seals, their future hinges on the success of social enterprises like Building Value, which promise to bring self-sufficiency and sustainable revenue flows. This means Building Value must continue to ex- pand to help fund Easter Seals.
In this vein, Building Value has recently embarked upon a new enterprise: landscaping. “It’s another logical progression because we take down these blighted buildings and the lots become eyesores,” Rich says.
“ We are the contractor of choice to go in there and make these lots green, build fences, and plant grass. In some cases they turn into community gardens or parks. One thing they are not becoming is havens for needles and busted bottles and drug deals.”
“What is neat about the lot stabilization is we are able to reengage Easter Seals,” says Lisa Doxsee, Communications Manager for Easter Seals. “The fences (at the lots) are being constructed by people with disabilities at Easter Seals in our wood-working program from mate- rial we have salvaged at Building Value.”
Building Value and Easter Seals do an incredible service for the community. They use a business model that shouldn’t work, employ people nobody wants to hire, salvage things others would throw away, then sell them back to the community. It is a worthy venture.
And it is fulfilling too. “ The first time someone left Building Value for a job in the community it was one of the proudest days of my life,” Rich says.
Building Value is located at 4040 Spring Grove Avenue, Cincinnati, OH 45223. You can reach them by phone at (513) 475-6783, or visit their website at www.buildingvalue.org.