The Heights

Heights CDC to convert vacant cabinet shop into community woodshop

In an economy where the construction industry is struggling to find enough skilled workers, the Heights Community Development Corporation (CDC) has found a unique opportunity to provide youth and residents with woodworking skills that are in high demand.

The Heights CDC, a nonprofit community development corporation that focuses on community issues like housing development and blight reduction, is developing a woodshop in the Heights neighborhood where community members will be able to take classes and produce independent woodworking projects. Classes could begin as early as May.

“It will create another space for people in the neighborhood. A space to work on projects they might not have space to work on at home, or use tools they might not be able to afford to purchase,” said Jared Myers, Executive Director of the Heights CDC, “It could also be an opportunity for entrepreneurship, to sell things they make, and for people to be able to work with their hands and learn new skills.”

The Heights CDC purchased the property on National Street to house the Heights Line Design Studio. The nonprofit selected the space primarily for its proximity to the future location of the Heights Line, a community-led redesign of National Street between Summer and Bayless avenues to incorporate a multi-use trail and greenspace.
Heights residents discuss possible uses of the woodshop space at the community interest meeting on December 13, 2018. (Submitted)

Midsouth Millworks operated on the property from 1980 until they closed their doors in 2012, shortly after the owner, Eddie Davis, passed away. His wife, Linda Davis, held onto the vacant property and its equipment until it was purchased by the Heights CDC in September 2018.

The property is comprised of three buildings. The Heights CDC converted the northernmost building (originally a barbershop that was used for years by Midsouth Millworks as a storage space) into an art gallery.

The second building at 761 National Street houses the Heights Line Design Studio, as well as a 1,200-square-foot workshop and storage space. Directly adjacent to the workshop space on the south end of the property at 751 National Street is a 2,800-square-foot millwork building ready for its next phase.


An Opportunity Emerges

After purchasing the property, Myers contacted several local cabinet makers to learn more about the tools that they had acquired with the space. Their initial idea was to sell the tools and convert the metal building into offices and meeting spaces.

Then, somebody suggested reaching out to Trevor Knight, owner of Memphis Millwork, who expressed interest in leasing the metal building to expand their operations. After bringing the idea to the Heights CDC Board for consideration, the CDC began leasing the space to Memphis Millwork in December 2018.

“This way we can get revenue from leasing the space, and there’s also an opportunity for workforce development, which lines up with the Heights CDC goals," said Myers.

The lease includes a Community Benefits Agreement, in which Memphis Millwork agrees to work in good faith with the Heights CDC to employ more people from the neighborhood. A Community Benefits Agreement  is a common community development tool in which a community group and a business or developer sign a contract that requires the business to enhance the surrounding community. 

This is the first time a CBA has been used in the Heights neighborhood. The Heights CDC believes there could be more opportunities for area employers to hire Heights residents and purchase from local businesses.


Building Community Interest

After signing a lease with Memphis Millwork, the Heights CDC board felt that there was a unique opportunity to open up the remaining workshop space to the community to provide opportunities for education and workforce development.

It was very important to the Heights CDC Board that community members guide how the space would be used. Leading its development is an advisory board of eight community members, many of whom have woodworking experience.

So on December 13, 2018, the group hosted an interest meeting was held at the Heights Design Studio. Twenty six community members attended, providing feedback about how the woodshop might be used in the future.

One emerging idea for the space is for it to host woodworking classes that align with other programs already taking place across the city.
The Heights community recently installed an external door on the east side of the woodshop facing National Street. Previously, all of the street-facing windows to the woodshop were boarded up. (Scarlet Ponder)
Tyler Parker, an advisory board member for the woodworking shop, also coordinates the SOS Builds afterschool program which teaches basic construction skills to middle and high school students in Binghampton.

SOS Builds partnered with the Heights CDC in fall 2017 to build planters and benches for the Heights Line demonstration project. Several of these planters currently sit in front of the Heights Design Studio.

“There’s talk about maybe using this for the next age level, so I work with middle schoolers and high Schoolers, and maybe I could pass the kids from our program onto this program to continue that training," said Parker.

Advisory board chairman Ryan Anderson, who is also the owner and founder of RKA Construction, said there may also be opportunity to partner with the Collegiate School of Memphis (CSM). CSM students have participated in volunteer service days coordinated by the Heights CDC, and some senior students plan to take on some of the design work for the Heights Line as their senior project.

Myers imagines that in the future, CSM students could host a woodworking club in the woodshop, or more experienced CSM teachers or students could teach a community class.

Woodworking classes could open up new, well-paid career possibilities for students who may not have considered skilled trades like construction and cabinetry. The Commercial Appeal reported that many contractors in Memphis had to turn down several new projects in 2017 due to labor shortages, in spite of hiring over 3,700 new construction workers.

“There’s a gap in the skilled trades,” said Anderson. "Not many are encouraged to go into trades like woodworking. It’s hard work, dirty work.”

Bridgetown Ventures, co-founded by advisory board member Nathan Cook, is another potential partner organization. 

Cook, who personally has some woodworking experience, has already engaged Heights residents through his nonprofit organization and hopes to teach woodworking classes in the upcoming space.

Woodworking classes could prepare both youth and adults for employment with Memphis Millworks or other local employers.

“If I’m a young man or young woman and decide I don’t want to go to college then I can take my skills and apply them elsewhere for a trade, which is a good way to make a living," said Parker.

The classes could also open up opportunities for entrepreneurship, where residents can take woodworking classes and learn to make items that can then be sold for personal gain or to benefit the program. 


Next Steps

One of the first issues that needs to be addressed is repairs to make the facility and equipment safe to use. Some advisory board members have been tasked with finding used tools to add to or replace what is already there, since of the tools that were left are unusable and will have to be replaced.

On March 23, the Heights CDC held a work day and invited community members to help clear out debris, clean the building, organize equipment and scrap tools that were no longer usable.

They also installed an outward facing door. Before the workday, the main entrance to the woodshop was through the design studio. At least eight people came out to help with the clean up, including several advisory board members.

Another important issue that will need to be addressed before classes begin is who will oversee the space and manage safety. Since the Heights CDC does not currently have the funding to pay a full time staff member, it is likely that the woodshop will initially be staffed by volunteers.

Myers said that the CDC plans to offer basic woodworking classes within the next few months. Classes will be advertised on the Heights CDC Facebook page and website. 

The advisory board will continue to develop partnerships and programming ideas. They hope to gain some inspiration by making a trip to Birmingham, Ala. this summer to visit Magic City Woodworks, a company that teaches woodworking and provides life skills training to young men to prepare them for employment.Magic City Woodworks started in a small garage, and the program now places dozens of people each year in paid internship programs.

“In an increasingly digital age, physical, tangible, concrete artifacts are still of value. They’re the things that sustain our lives in a real practical way,” said Kingsbury High School teacher and advisory board member Michael Gong, “The way that we have warmer, safer structures to live in, all of those things are important, and they don’t exist without some people taking up trades.”

Read more articles by Scarlet Ponder.

Scarlet Ponder is a certified urban planner and an honorary Memphian of five years. As a freelance writer and local transit planer, she is passionate about promoting equitable urban policy and amplifying the stories of everyday change-makers.
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