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Article By: Michaelle Bond (Staff Writer)
Most Philadelphians, Greg Trainor noted, have little need to own hulking power tools used for woodworking.
“But when we say it’s free, people show up and say, ‘Sure, I’ll take a radial arm saw and fit it into my row home,’ ” said Trainor, who runs the architectural salvage and reclaimed materials store Philly Reclaim.
His Tacony warehouse has been in a frenzy this week after he announced that everything is free to take because the store is closing. His offer of doors, sinks, bathtubs, lumber, and other building materials was even more popular than he expected. At one point on Monday, roughly 50 vehicles were lined up at the shop’s entrances. Tools and equipment have gone fast, he said.
Trainor is the executive director of the reuse nonprofit Philadelphia Community Corps and started the store in 2018 at the age of 27. His mission is to deconstruct buildings in a sustainable way and divert materials from landfills to give them new life.
But by Monday, everything must be gone from the 20,000-square-foot warehouse. The owner of the building that the nonprofit leases is selling, and Philly Reclaim has to go.
Trainor looked at some other warehouses, but he faced the reality that they don’t come cheap in Philadelphia. The cost to rent warehouse space in the region climbed from a few dollars per square foot before 2020 to more than $10 per square foot. The least expensive options Trainor found cost $8 per square foot – a lot more than the $3 the nonprofit strained to afford at the current location, where it moved at the end of 2019.
“The landscape has changed,” he said. “We can’t afford Philadelphia anymore.”
One challenge after another
The reuse nonprofit has had a rough time. “One long string of bad luck,” Trainor said.
Its warehouse is at 5200 Unruh Ave., Section J, or for a landmark reference, directly behind the former Daydreams Gentlemen’s Club. The out-of-the-way location has been challenging.
Still, the price was right. The organization tried to work out a deal to stay but wasn’t successful, and Trainor ran out of time to find somewhere else. The Tacony warehouse is the nonprofit’s third home in eight years.
The move to the current space happened in December 2019, just a few months before the pandemic hit. Trainor committed to the large space because he wanted to host events and fund-raisers and teach workshops on topics such as how to make furniture out of reclaimed materials.
The pandemic shut down those ideas before they really got started, and the organization wasn’t able to restart the job-training programs in deconstruction that it had previously run. In the first summer of the pandemic, Trainor started the Tacony Tool Library at the warehouse to rent out tools to homeowners for low prices – an initiative that also is ending with the move.
“It was this great experiment in what’s possible,” he said.
Last year, a clerical error at the Internal Revenue Service stripped the organization of its nonprofit status for about six months. People who hire the nonprofit for deconstruction jobs can get tax deductions if they donate materials to the organization. Roughly 60% of the money the nonprofit brings in comes from these arrangements, Trainor said.
But for half a year, the organization could not guarantee deductions for donors. So that business stopped. And the organization also could not raise funds or apply for grants.
The only thing the organization had to keep it going, Trainor said, was Philly Reclaim. And selling solid wood doors for $50 and building materials that would cost $1,000 somewhere else for a couple hundred dollars couldn’t make up the difference.
The nonprofit fell behind in its rent.
And then there’s the nature of the reclaimed materials business.
“You’re really looking for the right person looking exactly for the thing you have,” Trainor said. It’s part of the fun of the experience for customers, but the odds of success are low.
Nonprofits can’t afford warehouse rent
Anyone looking for warehouse space in and around Philadelphia faces a challenging market because of an undersupply of good-quality spaces and increased demand, said James Paterno, founder of the Philadelphia commercial realty firm Stockton Real Estate Advisors. Owners are under pressure to maximize rental income for themselves and their investors and are raising rents.
“Nonprofits are typically getting shut out or are at a significant disadvantage in that competitive landscape,” said Paterno, who is representing several nonprofits looking for space.
He suggests that nonprofits try to identify property owners who are willing to take their mission and needs into consideration and work with them on costs.
Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore on Washington Avenue in South Philadelphia, for example, has the “incredible good fortune” to have a landlord who is committed to the nonprofit’s mission, said Corinne O’Connell, chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia.
But, in general, she said, “Warehouse space along any of the major corridors is like beachfront property.”
Habitat’s store sells donated furniture, fixtures, and appliances, so its model is different from a place such as Philly Reclaim. But “there’s definitely a market” for selling all kinds of secondhand materials throughout the city, and the two nonprofits probably share customers who can’t afford to pay full price at big-box stores, O’Connell said.
Philly Reclaim shutting down “is a loss when we think about the recycle ecosystem in Philadelphia,” she said.
The city has many for-profit and nonprofit stores that sell recycled goods, but they all specialize in certain kinds of materials. And for-profit salvage companies tend to focus on high-end materials.
“We all share a little of the burden of saving things from the landfill,” said Karyn Gerred, founder and executive director of the Resource Exchange, a nonprofit based in North Philadelphia that focuses on selling discounted props, costumes, art supplies, and other materials that it saves from film and theater sets.
“I completely understand the uphill battle of trying to do what we do and maintain the square footage” as a nonprofit, she said. “It’s just incredibly challenging financially. It’s a very labor-intensive and difficult business model.”
But the current “produce, use, discard culture” is unsustainable, she said, and the city is going to need more people trying to divert materials from landfills to balance mass production and consumption of items such as building materials.
If Philadelphia loses organizations such as his, Trainor said, people will be forced to take building materials to dumps even if they would rather save them.
Trainor isn’t sure what his next step will be, but he said he still has “absolute faith” in his organization’s ability to succeed. For now, he’s focused on the immediate task of emptying the warehouse and directing the chaos the word free creates.
“At this point,” he said, “I just don’t want this stuff to end up in a landfill.”
The store, which can be reached at 267-343-4242, will be open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day until its last, on Sunday.