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ReUse Center Closed after 15 years

by Harvey Winje

The Reuse Center in Phillips closed on Dec. 11th, held a one week on-line auction, gave away the remains, and was ended by Dec 31st.

The Mpls. Reuse Center, which began as the first retail sales store selling reusable building materials in an urban shopping center in the United States, opened at the Hi-Lake Shopping Center on October 15, 1995. An Elder from Little Earth, Gladys Cain, opened the program with a traditional American Indian smudging and blessing followed with remarks by Senator Paul Wellstone, David Morris, city, county and state political representatives, environmental activists and community residents. This event topped off the culmination of 2 years of writing a business plan, fundraising, and conducting a pilot project in local warehouses in Phillips.

The ReUse Center did not originate from an idea of a few nor did it come from an entirely environmental perspective. Instead, it arose out of a controversy between Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis versus the Phillips Community about clearing land of 27 homes and 5 businesses where a state of the art, garbage transfer station was to be built costing 10 million dollars. A diverse community of homeowners and renters, seasoned activists and passionate mothers decried that their children were worth more than what a garbage station represented and that together, they would fight to prevent this from occurring. The garbage transfer station was not built in Phillips. In fact, it was not built anywhere. Instead, the community did the research to discover that they could save Hennepin County these many millions of dollars with a relatively simple remodeling to the downtown incinerator to accept the existing garbage trucks to operate efficiently. This organizing effort became the catalyst for The Green Institute.

Meanwhile, some of the activists combating that development of a garbage transfer station over a decade knew that there was “gold in that garbage”. After the garbage transfer station was defeated, they researched and developed a business plan with grant money from Hennepin County and the State of Minnesota’s Office of Environmental Assistance. They proved that over 30% of the urban waste stream is construction material of which a large part is reusable. This original group of dedicated staff, volunteers, consultants and advocates launched the Reuse Center which met or exceeded all of its financial and educational goals within the first four years.

Phillips Community had spawned a previous business of selling building materials removed from houses before they were demolished as local institutions such as Abbott Northwestern or Children’s Hospital expanded. That business closed, but some of its inventory and the inventory of a local contractor who saved materials collected over two decades became a major portion of the first inventory of the ReUse Center.

The ReUse Center’s founder often called it the “Ruse Center” because its reuse function was only a small part of its larger vision and qualification as a not-for-profit. Its initial work was also to create entry level jobs in the construction industry for the unemployed or underemployed in the local community, offer environmental education opportunities for children and adults, and a place for the cultures of construction and the arts to meet and learn together. For example, Turner Construction, at the time was the nation’s largest construction employer. They were intrigued with the idea that ReUse Center staff members might learn the language of construction within a safe and conducive environment allowing people of color to learn essential job skills to be gainfully employed in higher paying jobs within the construction industry. Wilder School would also bring bus loads of children for a day at the ReUse Center to learn valuable skills while building bat houses. Local colleges offered internships and classes in environmental and economic justice to their students using the ReUse Center as the backdrop to the teaching. The ReUse Center also was a designated VISTA site in those early years of its operation.

It was those other ancillary functions that complemented each other and its recycling of materials for a total store and educational experience. Conducting the store as a retail shopping experience allowed it to be accessible to many different types of customers. The educational component conducted with cthe Community Education Dept. of the Minneapolis Public Schools allowed the mission of the ReUse Center to be fulfilled by not only selling reusable building materials but also to teach how it is possible for anyone to become good stewards, whether they were rich or poor, homeowner or renter, urban or suburban in their perspective.

The original vision of the ReUse Center was for it to be a subsidiary of The Green Institute which would have allowed it to succeed or fail on its own. But, like a lot of parents, it is difficult to allow or accept your “first child” to just go off on its own and leave you. The decision to allow the ReUse Center to become a subsidiary of The Green Institute was squashed by a board of directors who did not know of the origins of The Green Institute or the ReUse Center and who also did not reside within the community that had conceived of these dynamic initiatives. The ReUse Center became an essential financial component of The Green Institute and, in the end, seemed to shed the parts of itself that would have allowed it to continue to grow and thrive (and in good faith to seek grant funding) and be more than just one more architectural salvage yard.

Perhaps the greatest travesty is that this community initiative that arose out of a great deal of struggle and plain old hard work by a diverse group of people and perspectives did not continue to find a way to be anchored and supported in the community which had helped to nurture its early years. Maybe the same decisions would have been reached but it would have at least subsided with a great deal more deserved appreciation and ceremony.

The idea is still a great one, right? Let’s hear YOUR IDEAS ABOUT WHAT HAPPENED TO THE MINNEAPOLIS REUSE CENTER!!!! Email editor@alleynews.org or send comments to PO Box 7006, Mpls., MN 55407.

Editors Note: In an effort to be fully transparent, the Editor of The Alley was one of many volunteers in the early years and is married to the ReUse Center founder, Susan Gust who was the Director of the ReUse Center until May 1997. Information for this piece was obtained from her and from the original business plan, meeting notes and anecdotal experiences of the ReUse Center staff. The business plan and other documentation of the beginning years of the ReUse Center are available by contacting The Alley Newspaper.

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8 Responses to “ReUse Center Closed after 15 years”

  1. […] proposal for a marina and expanded offices along Marshall St. in Northeast Minneapolis. Phillips’ ReUse Center is closed after 15 years, says the Alley. St. Paul’s papers ponder parks: the St. Paul Planning Commission is considering […]

  2. […] Another old favorite, the Reuse Center closed in January 2011. I mention them because their story is great. Read it here. […]

  3. Resident of Minneapolis says:

    I am landlord of few properties in Minneapolis and I used Reuse center in past. It worked great, but today i went to their Maplewood center location to find some sash window weights just to learn there is no Reuse center there any more. Going on line looking for alternative to this Reuse center, i am not able to find any….this is sad. I believe i am not alone missing this center

  4. T. Friedlander says:

    When I first learned about Reuse Center they were located on Lake near Hiawatha and the place was a treasure trove of old house parts. I would often go there just to see all the cool things I could get that I never really knew I needed. But times change.

    I can understand why it closed. The last time I was there the staff was uninterested and not in the least helpful but more importantly the items they had were filthy and vastly overpriced. Diversity of items was pitiful and, finally, the new location was a bear to find.

    I’m a big fan of NW Architectural Salvage on Selby in St. Paul. Small shop crammed with goodies.

  5. Steve Moroukian says:

    I was the Inventory Manager and involved in development, marketing and start-up and for the first year of operation.
    What glory I feel to have been a part of the creation of such a wonderful gem, assembled by innovators. The wisdom, love, care, knowledge, and skills of Susan Gust and Harvey Winje brought this dream to fruition.
    The original intent was carried-out through the first year of operation. After that, things began to fall apart…it became overly politicized, which is where things go to die. The fact that this amazing operation continued for as long as it did is very impressive. My feeling is that if things had continued, if the Board had not ‘fired’ Susan after the first year of operation because she did not meet their “goals,” the business would still be operating and the community would have gained a lot more as a result of its existence.

  6. Sherlene Engstrom says:

    is there another reuse it center in mpls.? i sure hope so:) can you please get back to me!

  7. Jonathan Miller says:

    No, unfortunately, there is not. There was another one in Maplewood, but it also closed.

  8. Jenso says:

    There seems to be a Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity ReStore in New Brighton. Trying it out soon!

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