ITHACA, N.Y. — When we last checked in on Finger Lakes ReUse, things weren’t looking too good. Plans for housing for vulnerable individuals and expanded business operations were put on hold. The larger store on Elmira Road was facing foreclosure and possible layoffs of its staff, many of whom were trained and brought back into the workforce by the non-profit. It’s the kind of scenario no director or manager wants to be staring down.

But they got through it. Finger Lakes ReUse is still here.

“We successfully refinanced in late September,” says Finger Lakes ReUse Executive Director Diane Cohen. “That’s thanks in large part to Alternatives Federal Credit Union (AFCU), they took a big chunk of our refinancing, and then a national organization called the Non-Profit Finance Fund (NFF). They did a participation refinancing loan, so we now have a real mortgage…we had a mortgage before, but it was held by the business people that we bought the property from, John Novarr and his business partners. John helped us put together a creative deal to allow us to grow into this, and to see if this, a community experiment, was something that would be sustainable. What we’ve demonstrated is that there is far more supply than we ever had imagined.”

Photo by Brian Crandall.

Asked about what she learned from the scare earlier this year, Cohen paused for a long moment before giving a wry smile. “It was one stressful experience in a long string of stressful experiences. This was a big one, there were more zeroes involved. It was a seven-month period of being in default on our mortgage. What was revealed to us was how much and how deep the community support is for what we’re doing. I was having these daily affirmations, people cheer-leading or being willing to help, I met with many community leaders, the county, the city, local developers, business people…no one really had a criticism of what we were doing, they really wanted to see us survive. It was an affirmation of our strategy – convenience, affordability and visibility.”

ReUse has come a long way since it opened at the Triphammer Mall with a $700 initial investment in 2008. Today, the organization employs 42 living wage staff at two stores at Triphammer and the former BOCES at 214 Elmira Road, it hosts 80 volunteers weekly, and following another year of 20%+ sales growth, revenue from the refurbishment, repair and resale of donated used items is over $1.5 million dollars. Cohen says that with the larger Elmira Road location, they’ve seen a big influx of visitors, especially students looking to furnish apartments and dorms on the cheap. The organization is looking at expanding its hours to accommodate the increase in customers.

ReUse is something of a unique organization. Every good-sized town has its Salvation Army or Goodwill. But ReUse is more than that. It has a crew that teams up with contractors to deconstruct buildings, rather than demolish them, and sell the salvageable materials. There’s a technical assistance program for those experiencing trouble with their computers, and want a low-cost option to try and get their digital woes resolved. It has a job-training program, ReSET, to help get people who have had difficulties in entering or staying in the workforce skills they can use to obtain gainful employment, whether at ReUse or another organization.

ReSET participants in the computer training space. Photo by Brian Crandall.

“It’s been a positive experience. Have we done it perfectly? No. Are we getting better at it? Absolutely,” said Cohen. She described “having chills” when local businesses not only offered to give interviews to job training program attendees, but helped in the training itself, with outside educators coming in to teach courses on networking, web development and I.T. security. The 15th round of ReSET is ongoing. Those who complete the 10-week, 20 hours/week training and the subsequent 15-week apprenticeship program have a 100% job or college placement rate. Since 2012, Cohen estimates 25 people have completed the training and the apprenticeship. “Being able to be that stepping stone…ReUse can provide that, we can hold open the door if they’re willing to do the work. Moving someone off of public assistance and into living wage work has tremendous social value.”

Granted, ReUse has a lot of activities going. But it still remains focused on its original mission – eliminating and reducing waste by reusing materials, whether furniture or clothes or books. “We have no idea how much volume we generate as humans because it all just gets squirreled away.”

In that same sustainability frame of mind, the organization has joined the Ithaca 2030 District, which seeks to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from commercial properties and their operations. This would mean reducing the carbon footprint at the Elmira Road store by 50% by 2030. Cohen reasoned that just as reusing extends the life of a material and reduced overall extraction and production footprints, ReUse sees itself as a big part of the solution to reducing carbon footprints, both its own and its patrons.

A volunteer prices freshly donated items at the back of the store. Photo by Brian Crandall.

As people take the time to reflect and say thanks this week, it really goes beyond the individual. An organization like Finger Lakes ReUse may not be here today were it not for AFCU, the NFF, the Park Foundation, the City of Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency, and John Novarr. In turn, dozens of individuals have ReUse to thanks for employment or helping them build the skills and confidence they needed for employment.

Or, more simply, Finger Lakes ReUse wouldn’t be here if people didn’t donate to it and patronize it. In turn, it deserves thanks for removing the guilt of throwing perfectly good stuff in the garbage, and helping that stuff find a new home. There are many ways to be thankful for something.

Now that the refinancing is behind them, a relief as that is, ReUse can now turn back to its other problems — the growing volume of materials coming in daily.

“The cars queue up and the workers hustle…that combined with trying to make efficiencies in our space, like densifying our shelving units to have more product out on the floor. For every $100 of material we have out on the floor, we sell $70, and that’s been consistent for years. We need to price so many goods in each department to meet our goals. That’s the way our organization is learning. It’s challenging, it’s labor-intensive,” said Cohen. “Sales are only slightly more than our staffing costs. We’re 80% self-sufficient, and we’re hoping to get closer to 100% so that we can use grants for social impact programs like the job-training program, and long-term uses. We’re trying to figure that out right now, be a little more efficient. I’m convinced we can be 105% self-supporting. We’re getting really good at running the stores.”

“There’s a massive organic quality to it, but it’s something I feel very honored to be a part of,” Cohen added. “I watch the integrity with which my coworkers operate, the stress they manage operating a retail store. We’re not a corporate box. We try to make people happy and think creatively. Watching people do that is an amazing experience. It’s quite the phenomenon that’s happening here.”

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.