Since 2011, Reclaim Detroit has dismantled old homes in the city, salvaging the wood, fixtures, bricks and even doorknobs for new projects, from its own line of cutting board and other products to outfitting private homes to supplying materials for the city’s hip new bars and restaurants as well as Dan Gilbert’s restoration of the Dime Building downtown.

Designed as a nonprofit workforce training project to teach construction skills to city residents, ReClaim Detroit aims to deconstruct 10 percent of the city’s 70,000 abandoned homes while reducing landfill waste and recycling vintage materials.

But after a devastating fire destroyed its Highland Park warehouse last February, ReClaim Detroit’s faced its biggest challenge: salvaging itself.

Susan Dundon, business innovation director at EcoWorks, the nonprofit parent organization of ReClaim Detroit, recalls getting the news in the wee hours of a winter night.

“We were stunned. What we lost was not something that could be easily recouped. This is part of the history of Detroit,” she says. “When I think about the absolute treasures that we had there, that’s the most heartbreaking.”

Almost immediately, Dundon was contacting corporations and other potential supporters while securing discounts to repurchase equipment.

While a CrowdRise online campaign raised about $13,000 from supporters around the world, it was a far cry from the roughly $100,000 ReClaim Detroit needed to get back on its feet.

Then Dundon got a call from quiet little foundation she didn’t know existed, Open Road Alliance, a private charity based in Washington, D.C. The group targets situations like ReClaim Detroit’s: nonprofits in need of a one-time investment after an unexpected, even devastating event.

Maya Winkelstein, executive director of Open Road, says she heard about ReClaim Detroit through a funding partner who knew about the fire and asked if Open Road could help.

Winkelstein picked up the phone and asked: “What’s going on?”

She recalls learning about ReClaim Detroit’s workforce program, which suddenly was in jeopardy with no equipment or facility for workers, along with summer contracts already lined up to deconstruct houses and orders to fill for customers. “All these issues that, without the fire, would be no problem,” Winkelstein says.

She was particularly impressed with how little time ReClaim Detroit wasted getting re-organized: within 48 hours of the fire the nonprofit already started to make plans. Within 30 days, Open Road had cut a check for $100,000. “They were the perfect candidate,” Winkelstein says. “It was a no-brainer.”

The money allowed the nonprofit to get equipment and set up a mill shop in a rented space on Holden to start rebuilding inventory and fill orders for custom tables among other items. “We’re not at the same level of capacity as we were, but it’s underway,” says Dundon.

Other major contributions since the fire includes $10,000 from the Knight Foundation and $3,000 from the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation.

Another important piece already in place came by way of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation in collaboration with the city of Detroit and Detroit Employment Solutions Corp., a $500,000 work force training program that’s part of the Detroit Environmental Employment Program.

Training workers

Part of ReClaim Detroit’s goal is to provide jobs.

The work force training program provides training for workers to get certified for construction jobs. It was designed specifically to help people with barriers to employment, says Dundon. The requirements are few: trainees must be Detroit residents, at least 18 years old and able to physically handle construction work. “We’re able to provide this support to returning citizens, people who have been chronically unemployed and youth. It’s been great,” says Dundon.

Trainees work alongside staff as they help to clean up the city and provide raw materials and custom orders to individuals as well as builders, hotels and restaurants, which has included Great Lakes Coffee, Top of the Pontch and Sweet Lorraine’s Mac n’ Brewz.

ReClaim Detroit started in May with 45 people learning everything from construction and demolition to handling hazardous wastes and asbestos abatement and working through October. Next February and April, 24 more people will start training.

The goal is to get them jobs, most of which pay $18 to $20 per hour, says Dundon, who notes that the program has about a placement rate of about 85 percent.

In early October, traineeswere setting up a wood shop at the temporary offices on Holden . Terrence May, 45, who heard of the program from a friend, says he’s gotten certified to drive a skid steer and hi-low, and work with asbestos and hazardous materials. “They see those certificates and they hire you lickety split,” May says.

Pamela Williams, 60, came after being laid off from a retail job and hopes to work with asbestos removal. With three sons, she doesn’t mind being the rare female among the younger guys. “They are adorable,” Williams says. “I have energy and motivations to learn more and get out there. It’s exciting.”

New facility

ReClaim Detroit also is on track to get all its operations under one roof.

In May, the nonprofit signed a 30-year lease with the city of Detroit, entering a public-private partnership for a deconstruction hub in a former parks and recreation storage building on Piquette Street. The hub is part of the city’s goal of creating a more sustainable community, reusing materials and reducing landfill waste.

The four-acre complex includes about 46,000 square feet of space plus another 20,000 square feet in outer buildings. The cost to remodel the facility, which is being developed by Edward Siegel, principal at Jacobs Street, is expected to be about $2 million to $3 million.

Although the move is still about a year away, “It will be a significant expansion,” says Jeremy Haines, director of ReClaim Detroit, noting that the nonprofit has been working out of at least three spaces since the fire. “It’s an amazing difference to have your operations consolidated under one roof, from every imaginable perspective.”

Looking over the progress made since the fire, Dundon adds: “We saw the opportunity to make something better come out of this real tragedy, to really focus our strategic plan, and we’re moving forward. I feel like we are in a really strong position right now.”

Ellen Piligian is a Metro Detroit freelance journalist

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