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Bringing Laundry, Opportunity Home (Part 1)

North Heights Linen Service modeled after Evergreen Cooperative Laundry in Ohio

AMARILLO — For years, healthcare entities in the Texas panhandle had to send out their linens to be processed.

Sometimes the goods traveled hundreds of miles.

Then, in 2013, a group in Amarillo read about the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry in Cleveland, a worker-owned co-op. That raised a question: Could such an operation could succeed in Texas?

After eight years, North Heights Linen Service (NHLS) is up and running, processing healthcare operation goods in Amarillo.

“This facility was built to provide healthcare linens to the many entities in the Texas panhandle,” says Richard Engler, general manager of NHLS. “Previously much of this work had been sent to facilities out of state as no local option was available.”

Bowden Jones, an NHLS Board member, says that the healthcare system is vital to the success of the city.

“Being able to service this industry locally helps to bring and retain revenue for the city,” he says. “Local servicing also allows for those organizations served to receive cost savings as well, because of the proximity of the laundry to their establishments.”

Jones adds that the laundry was started by individuals who have an interest in improving one of the underserved areas of Amarillo and, thus, improving the city of Amarillo as a whole by using the Evergreen Laundry model.

“(The Evergreen Laundry model … is one of the few, if not the only type of model, that purposes to create a viable business that employees receive the opportunity to have ownership in,” Jones says.

“Many underserved communities such as North Amarillo can be improved through ownership. This model allows that to happen.”

LOCAL BENEFITS

Puff Neigos, who is also on the NHLS Board, says the Amarillo Area Foundation initiated the operation by looking at how the anchor institutions could work together to prevent “economic leakage” in the Texas Panhandle.

“It became apparent very quickly that Amarillo did not have a laundry that was certified to adequately clean linens for medical organizations,” she says. “Each of the hospitals were sending their linens to laundries over 300 miles away.”

Once this was discovered, the foundation began researching how to keep the dollars and jobs local. Neigos says that’s when they learned about the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, and it modeled how officials in Amarillo wanted their laundry to operate.

“As a worker-owned co-op, not only could the jobs and profits stay, but we could make a transformational difference for some of our neighbors by providing an opportunity to develop wealth,” she says.

“Our company is unique in the fact that it was created as a co-op, which will give the workers the ability to have ownership and input into the decisions that are made by the company,” agrees Jones.

“Bringing the jobs back to Amarillo was an important consideration in the decision to build NHLS,” adds Engler.

Leonard Cantly, production manager 1 for NHLS, says the company is unique in the laundry business because of its location.

“We are the only healthcare-designed laundry in the area,” he says. “We have also spearheaded a culture change by hiring the hard to hire. Those who have only heard ‘no,’ we are saying, ‘yes.’”

Jones points out that another company could have set up a laundry, providing jobs for the community, but the profits would be funneled out somewhere else.

“This company will allow a significant amount of those profits to remain in the community and ideally help to create growth, build wealth and allow for the citizens of the community to have a hand up to change their lives for the better,” he shares.

“There are also a number of normally hard to employ individuals that our company will welcome in order to give them an opportunity to change their circumstance and get on the path to success.”

Neigos shares that Ted Howard with the Democracy Collaborative and the people at Evergreen were instrumental in helping North Heights Linen Service establish the laundry, providing valuable information that helped them avoid serious errors.

In addition to the opportunity for ownership, NHLS has added a classroom to the building for GED classes and college courses that will assist its employees going forward.

“Our partnership with Amarillo College and having a classroom within our facility for employee education is the first that I have seen in the industry and highlights our commitment to our coworkers’ growth and opportunity enhancement,” Engler says.

“One of the greatest benefits of this project has been how our community has pulled together to make this a successful endeavor,” Neigos shares. “All of our major community banks have joined to provide funding.

“In addition, our community foundation has chosen to invest in the project along with the Amarillo Economic Development Corporation. The City of Amarillo sold NHLS the land at a reasonable price and gave favorable terms on an installment note.

“Finally, our higher education institutions, Amarillo College and West Texas A&M University, will be providing our classroom experiences. This is truly a community-based collaboration that benefits the North Heights neighborhood, the local hospitals, the City of Amarillo and the people who live and work in the Texas Panhandle.”

Check back Thursday for the conclusion with a look at NHLS's operation.