A Potential Wellspring of Job Growth

To look around the facilities at Alliance Upholstery, located in the former Bottaro Skolnick building in Springfield’s South End, one might gain a new perspective on the phrase ‘humble beginnings.’

Alliance is a decades-old and very successful upholstery business that operates in what could only be called a no-frills environment — that’s an industry term of sorts — in the century-old building where monkey wrenches, one of Springfield’s many ‘firsts,’ were manufactured.

Sharing space with Alliance is something called the Wellspring Upholstery Cooperative, or WUC, the first in what will hopefully be a network of businesses created to tap into the huge buying power possessed by the region’s colleges, healthcare facilities, and other large institutions, and create worker-owned businesses — and much-needed jobs (see story on page 6).

Wellspring, which, as the name suggests, is designed to created a continuous supply of jobs and opportunities, was inspired by similar initiatives elsewhere, including the hugely successful Evergreen Collaboratives in Cleveland and the Mondragon Cooperatives in Spain, which to date have created more than 100 businesses now employing more than 80,000 people.

Ventures like Wellspring have to start somewhere, and this one started with a few dozen booths from a dining commons at UMass Amherst, several chairs from the Westfield mayor’s office, and a few items from the campus hotel at UMass, projects that have kept the first WUC employees busy.

The hope, and expectation, is that there will soon be many more upholstery projects and employees to handle those assignments, and then the creation of more businesses, such as a greenhouse operation that could supply those aforementioned anchor businesses with fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as a commercial laundry, such as the one created by Evergreen, one of its most successful ventures.

We believe that it can happen, and will happen, largely because there are a number of anchor businesses and partners committed to making this a success. That first list includes Baystate Health, the Sisters of Providence Health System, UMass Amherst, Springfield Technical Community College, and Western New England University. The latter includes the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, Partners for a Healthier Community, and the United Way of Pioneer Valley.

Beyond this large and solid base of support, though, is the understanding that a venture like Wellspring needs to work.

Indeed, economic development takes many forms, from attracting new businesses to helping existing ventures expand, to creating new business sectors, such as the biosciences. One that’s often overlooked is generating development in neighborhoods where private investment is rare, if it occurs at all, and Springfield has many of those.

Meanwhile, generating jobs in such neighborhoods is not only an economic-development issue, but a health issue as well — jobs are certainly a key component to a healthy community, and a lack of jobs is one of the factors that has made Hampden County the least healthy county in the state in recent years.

At the moment, the program created by all those aforementioned partners has created a wellspring of potential. In time, and perhaps not much of it, it may indeed become a key source of opportunities and jobs.

From the current humble beginnings, great things are possible, and likely. v

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