Out of Necessity

By Brian Wallace, CLA Member posted 01-30-2018 12:53

  
“Necessity is the mother of taking chances.” – Mark Twain

A recent visit to a laundromat in the Lower Price Hill enclave in Cincinnati got me thinking about our business and the nature of necessity. The aforementioned laundry is Washing Well community laundromat, a social venture established by a local organization called Community Matters whose mission is to create a thriving and more just community by removing barriers to opportunity. This handsome corner laundromat was bustling on a Sunday afternoon in January when I stepped through the front door to meet with Patty Lee, Community Matters’ director of development.

When I asked her why a community development nonprofit suddenly became a laundromat owner in 2016 she simply said, “Necessity.” She went on to say that Community Matters had a long history of bringing support to the needy Lower Price Hill neighborhood with programs such as promoting healthy eating by establishing a community garden and a community food pantry stocked with healthy choices and complimentary food for those in need to address what’s become to be known in low-income, urban areas as “food deserts.”

Patty told me that when they surveyed local residents about ongoing needs, “it was clear that Lower Price Hill was a laundry desert.” Some years ago, the last for-profit laundry closed in this tight-knit neighborhood of about 1,500 residents – 85 percent of whom are renters and many without their own transportation. Identifying that unmet necessity led to their journey toward laundromat ownership.

She shared some of the ups and downs of new laundry development common to all of us laundry veterans – from difficulty with permits and approvals from the local water authority to shoring up a floor above a basement in order to accept today’s frontload washers. “It’s been a lot of trial and error along with hard work of the staff.” Patty also thanked grant-makers such as P&G and technical assistance from local commercial laundry distributor, HM Company in Cincinnati.

The net result is a well-equipped, clean and beautifully decorated showplace for the neighborhood, which is employing locals and regularly hosting classes and other opportunities for community connections. “Our goal is to transition Washing Well into a worker-owned cooperative that will create new jobs for residents and establish community ownership,” she added.

Washing Well is another of several “nonprofit laundromats” that have come to my attention in recent years – a number of which have been profiled in PlanetLaundry, including Laundry Matters and Social Suds Resource Center. The origin stories share many similarities: community or faith-based organization builds a laundry of its own to serve the essential need of clean clothes in a neighborhood lacking laundry services while putting locals to work and creating a positive impact.

On the for-profit side of the industry, we tend to think about necessity in the context of a stable and steady business opportunity that stands up well to the inevitable economic swings. I think the example of nonprofit laundries reminds us that we are offering more than a clean, safe place to wash and dry clothes. We are offering our customers a vital service to tackle an essential need.

How many of you have had a customer come up and actually thank you for opening or remodeling your laundromat? I know the answer is “many,” because I’ve heard the stories and witnessed the comments. Where else in business do proprietors hear these expressions of true gratitude? A clean, well-run laundry meets that basic need and demonstrates respect for the neighborhood. It punctuates the value of the service we provide and the obligation I feel to do what we can to care for the communities we serve. The growing initiatives at our LaundryCares Foundation are proving to be a great way to meet that obligation along with scores of you that are finding innovative ways to engage and support your communities.

What else should we be doing? Let’s look for more opportunities in existing “laundry deserts” that may not appear as perfect locations on paper but can serve to lift up a neighborhood with a small laundry. Let’s serve as cheerleaders and mentors for local development organizations that have the deep community roots but not the requisite laundry industry expertise.

Our existing laundries can all do more to invite community groups into our locations to provide access to the families who may need the most help. This necessity for clean clothes affords us both a great entrepreneurial opportunity and the privilege of helping local families live better.

For more information and inspiration, visit www.laundrycares.org.
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