Launch of closely watched enterprise-community development plan in Indianapolis

Less than a year ago, the corner of 38th Street and Sheridan Avenue offered nearly empty parking and a bus stop. There were no grocery stores within walking distance. Arlington Woods residents have worked hard to battle food insecurity and other results of historic divestment.

The bus stop is still there, and now it sits next to a nearly 50,000 square foot medical device manufacturing facility. The Goodwill Commercial Services facility is a one-story brick building with tall windows. Just outside is a wooded yard with a small picnic table.

Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana built the medical device manufacturing facility, including catheters and drainage needles, for Bloomington-based Cook Medical. And residents have worked with Goodwill and Cook to ensure the business plan includes significant community investment.

That plan is now underway, including a community-owned grocery store, which is expected to open early next year. And the manufacturing plant opens at least 100 new jobs in the neighborhood. Juanita Easterling, the factory’s director of operations, said all those hired at the time of this report were from the community.

And now that it’s open, it hosts wellness and community events for those employees.

“We like to focus on the whole here: mind, body and spirit,” Easterling said.

These resources include yoga classes, community meetings, and complementary services, such as professional development, mental health treatment, housing assistance, and life coaching.

“I don’t have to call anyone, I can just say, ‘Hey, I have an employee who is facing homelessness. We need housing assistance,” Easterling said. “And boom, we have the resource here.”

Two life coaches are on site, and one works specifically with employees who have criminal records. With this life coach, they can follow a reintegration program, New Beginnings. It is one of more than 40 business and social service partners, many of them nonprofits, that Cook Medical has hired to provide community support.

Easterling said these partners are helping residents break the cycle of poverty.

“We allow the community to use the facility however they want, you know, because we’re here to be a partner,” Easterling said. “We are not here to build on a community, we are here to be a partner with the community.”

Good access to employment

The Cook Medical facility opened in early May. Goodwill has now hired a fifth of the starting roster. At the time of this report, 20 employees worked in the lab. And Goodwill is still hiring. The goal is to have 100 employees by the end of the year.

“I’m proud to say that we’re probably one of the only buildings and facilities right now in Indiana that has a waiting list to work,” Easterling said. “I have 100 candidates who have applied to be a supervisor. And then I have a waiting list of 100 people from appointments, open interviews and online applications.

Jobs start at $15 an hour, most are full-time and include benefits. These “good jobs” come from a model of corporate social responsibility, an approach that prioritizes positive community impacts as part of business practices.

Cook and Goodwill chose this area because of its historical divestment. In the 1980s and 1990s, industrial giants moved one by one, taking jobs with them. While the suburbs gained high-paying jobs, most of the city’s growth came from lower-paying jobs. The region’s middle class has moved on.

What does the community think?

Dora Figueroa, a longtime resident of northeast Indianapolis, was one of the facility’s first employees.

Prior to working here, she worked in restaurants for nearly 25 years. She started doing basic assembly when the factory opened in May, and then, after just a few months, her boss asked her to be a supervisor. She said no other employer had ever offered her a promotion.

“You are going to be an employee all the time. Just an employee,” Figueroa said. “But when I came here, I started as a very small employee. And later they made me grow. I can say. I like to learn every day.

She also takes advantage of company tuition assistance that can be tied to GED programs. Employees can earn high school and college degrees on the clock, so they don’t have to sacrifice salaries.

She said that before this job, she had given up hope for her high school diploma.

“Since taking this job, my life has changed so much,” she said. “I can tell you that after 25 years, I come here, and this is my first opportunity to learn and grow.”

Figueroa is not alone, with many locals saying they are happy with the opportunities for economic development. These opportunities include a community-run grocery store — as many as five grocery stores have closed in the past few years and the neighborhood has become a food desert.

Northeastern native Michael McFarland is actively involved in efforts to address food insecurity in the region. He served in the military and said when he returned to the Arlington Woods neighborhood he was devastated.

“I’ve been to third world countries that have better access to food,” McFarland said.

To solve this problem, he and his friend Marckus Williams started Wall Street Grocery, a small convenience store on 38th Street. And when Cook Medical and Goodwill picked the neighborhood, they connected with McFarland and Williams.

“We struggled a lot just to try to provide that for our neighborhood,” McFarland said. “So we’re just lucky to have Cook and Goodwill join us and help us deliver this much needed item to the neighborhood on a major level.”

McFarland and Williams will run and own Indy Fresh Market, a multimillion-dollar full-size grocery store located adjacent to Cook’s facility. The market is expected to open in the spring of next year. Cook will transfer operations and ownership to McFarland and Williams through a rent-to-own model. Although it’s early to predict, McFarland said with their potential sales, it won’t be long before they own the store 100%.

McFarland said the Cook/Goodwill community investment business model helps the neighborhood.

“It’s not nothing,” McFarland said. “Most people don’t have even the smallest support system to help them overcome the smallest obstacles.”

He says his brother was recently released from prison and hired at the manufacturing plant. He has been working there for three months. This allowed him to buy a car and he plans to have his own apartment soon.

Is this model reproducible?

Ashley Gurvitz, CEO of the United Northeast Community Development Corporation, thinks so — if companies are willing to work directly with communities.

“The first step to making that happen is to identify other CEOs who have this mission and vision and who also know the importance of having a community,” Gurvitz said. “Get out of the conference room and into your community.”

Gurvitz is a longtime resident of the area and has facilitated conversations with community members and stakeholders from the early planning stages of the manufacturing facility. She helped Cook and Goodwill get community feedback and prioritize community needs, like groceries.

“We didn’t wait for the vision to be complete to say, oh, here come the developers,” Gurvitz said. “And so, as soon as we discovered the very first group of actors, we involved our residents. I’m like, ‘Hey, we have this potential opportunity. Let me know your comments.”’

She said the contribution is ongoing. A Residents’ Council meets monthly with stakeholders to share feedback, plan events and identify roadblocks. This explains how partners join the community to work with people facing the effects of divestment.

Tom Guevara is the director of the Public Policy Institute at Indiana University. He said this emerging business model of prioritizing community reinvestment is seen as a national example.

“Normally the private sector steps in and their part is to build a place where people can be hired and employed, and earn salaries,” Guevara said.

He said that traditionally corporate community investment has come in the form of donations to community organizations, but that’s about it.

“[But here] Cook says… look, we’re going to have to help them overcome some of these other life obstacles that have kept them from gaining greater economic and personal autonomy.

Contact Sydney Dauphinais, WFYI Economic Equity Reporter, at [email protected] Follow on Twitter: @syddauphinais.

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