Wellspring Collaborative Stitches up Brighter Future for Springfield

Last week, Artwain Davis and Alex Guevara stripped vinyl from banquet hall booths. It was one step in the revitalization of not just the booths, but also the city of Springfield.

Davis and Guevara work at the Wellspring Upholstery Cooperative, a new South End business that’s located on Main Street in the Monkey Wrench Building. But the co-op isn’t your typical upholstery shop. It’s part of the Wellspring Collaborative, a creative economic development project that draws on the purchasing power of the area’s largest employers and anchor institutions to provide a market for new, worker-owned companies.

Fred Rose, a lecturer at the Center for Public Policy and Administration, conceived of and directs the collaborative. He has put together a broad coalition of the region’s largest employers, as well as community and business leaders from throughout the Pioneer Valley. Many of them joined Springfield Mayor Domenic J. Sarno at a ribbon-cutting ceremony March 26 at the upholstery shop, Wellspring’s first business.

Wellspring co-director Emily Kawano explained the concept at the heart of the collaborative’s economic development plan, “Income is usually not enough. The difference in having a stable lifestyle is having some assets.”

That’s why employees at the upholstery shop will have the opportunity to become worker-owners after a year on the job. Having a financial stake in the company will not only provide employees with much-needed assets. It will also make the shop itself a more stable and viable business.

“Worker cooperatives have a much higher survival rate,” said Mary Hoyer, from the Cooperative Fund of New England. “Their services and products tend to be of a higher quality because of worker pride.” And because they are owned by people in the community, she added, co-ops as a rule don’t close up and move to where rent is cheaper.

The co-op is just one aspect of the Wellspring upholstery shop that anchors it in the Springfield community. It also has partnerships with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department and a veteran Springfield upholsterer. The sheriff’s department has run an upholstery training program in the county jail for several decades. By partnering with the sheriff, the Wellspring co-op has access to a pool of potential employees who already have some training and often are in need of a job upon release from jail. The co-op’s other partner, Alliance Upholstery, is an established Springfield business with more than 40 years of upholstering experience and a fully equipped shop, where the Wellspring co-op is located. Alliance’s owner, Evan Cohen, is managing Wellspring Upholstery and training the incoming workforce.

Wellspring’s upholsterers have already completed jobs for the Berkshire Dining Commons and the Westfield mayor’s office. Rose said he hopes that the partnerships the Wellspring Collaborative has developed with the region’s anchor institutions will yield further upholstery contracts.