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More than just the next urban farm: Evergreen Coops solving the ‘system failure’ in local economies

by Clare Goff

Letttuce growing in an Evergreen greenhouse

Today, a guest blog – I asked Clare Goff, deputy editor of New Start magazine, to write about a phenomenal discussion she organised earlier this month. It’s about building local & regional institutions that can re-shape a place in the long term. And though the context seems a specific one not applicable to Dublin (whatever the city’s problems, it’s not suffering from post-industrial implosion), the lessons from Cleveland, Ohio have wider relevance – witness, for example, how a similar success story has long underpinned regional prosperity in the Basque Country. Over to Clare… Today, a guest blog – I asked Clare Goff, deputy editor of New Start magazine, to write about a phenomenal discussion she organised earlier this month. It’s about building local & regional institutions that can re-shape a place in the long term. And though the context seems a specific one not applicable to Dublin (whatever the city’s problems, it’s not suffering from post-industrial implosion), the lessons from Cleveland, Ohio have wider relevance – witness, for example, how a similar success story has long underpinned regional prosperity in the Basque Country. Over to Clare…

‘Economic development as it’s practised in this country is fundamentally broken. In one of the richest nations on earth one third of the population live in dire circumstances. What we’ve been doing up until now has not been working.’

Ted Howard, founder of Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland Ohio, described the problem of post-industrial cities such as Cleveland as one of ‘system failure’, in a talk to a UK audience at Hub Westminster this month. With its population a third of what it was thirty years ago and its main source of wealth creation – manufacturing – having moved elsewhere, what Cleveland needed was not a reboot or an injection but a fundamental rethinking and rebuilding of its economic system.

Rather than looking outside Cleveland for new sources of wealth - the glitter of ‘inward investment’ - Howard began tackling the city’s problems by focusing on the resources there already and considering how the wealth that remained could be harnessed for the benefit of the local community.
He turned to Cleveland’s biggest employers, anchor institutions such as hospitals, universities, museums and local government, which, unlike private companies, are rooted to place. As Howard says, ‘Some of them even have the word Cleveland in their name’.

Crucially, they also have large procurement budgets; just three of the city’s hospitals spend more than $3bn a year on goods and services, only a small proportion of which was being spent locally. To Howard the opportunity to rebuild Cleveland’s local economy lay in circulating the wealth of these place-based institutions within the neighbourhoods in which they were based.

The Evergreen Cooperatives initiative currently comprises three co-operative businesses set up to provide goods and services to these anchor institutions. Evergreen Laundry is the most ecological in the state, providing local laundry facilities where previously there were none – and has become a source of secure local jobs at decent wages and offering training and free healthcare. A venture that installs solar panels on the university and hospital roofs, and an inner city farm supplying the huge institutional kitchens are building food and energy resilience into their systems. More businesses are in the pipeline and Howard’s vision is of a network of co-operatives with a Bank of Cleveland at its heart.

A worker-owner of Evergreen Cooperative Laundry.

Keith Parkham, the first Evergreen employee hired and now the operations manager of the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry

One of the solar coop crews doing an installation on the roof of a Cleveland hospital

The first group of Worker-owners of their coop (at a ceremony where they were voted into the coop).


Evergreen is still in its early stages. Howard calls it a ‘laboratory for a new economic development trajectory’. From the failure of market capitalism a new system is emerging, one that is focused not on attracting external capital but on ensuring that capital flows effectively within a local economy.

In the new system of regeneration, money needs to form an effective hydrology, flowing to the places in which it is needed without leakage. A self-sustaining system.

The question now is how can our local institutions be re-modelled so that they help rather than hinder this hydrology?

One of Howard’s key challenges in setting up Evergreen was educating the city’s local leaders – at City Hall as well as at the universities and hospitals involved. It took a while to convince them of the redundancy of their current model, he says, and of their responsibility to give alternative propositions a chance. Equally, they were initially sceptical of benefits to them of using the resources available in the deprived communities on their doorsteps.
For too long, local institutions have focused on how their services can help local communities - while the systems on which those very services rely often actually hinder the wellbeing and progress of those communities. The genius of Cleveland’s Evergreen model lies in breaking down the barriers of procurement bureaucracy so that local wealth has effective pathways to circulate; building local finance institutions; and generating a new cohort of local social enterprises tuned to the needs of both big institutions and local disadvantaged populations. Together, this may well show the way to new economic development logic, a re-modelling of our local institutions so that local wealth no longer flows out but sticks around. 
 
To read more about Evergreen click here.

 

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