Selling Detergent And Hope

Poverty Buster

The modest brick building in a forgotten neighborhood here looks beaten - its windows punched out, its walls dirtied with soot, and its roof capped with a plastic tarp.

Despite its charred facade, this shell of a Dollar General store remains an enduring symbol of hope, corporate courage, and true community grit.

It is the center of a tale of urban Tennesseans joining with a corporate partner to create one of the nation's earliest triumphs in moving inner-city residents off welfare and into jobs.

Built in the heart of a public housing project, the store has involved locals in nearly all aspects of the retail operation. The store - which sells everything from tennis shoes to laundry detergent - has become a showcase of persistence.

It appeared four years of success would be erased by arsonists this past August. But Nashville's poorest residents have defiantly rallied again - raising $100,000 to rebuild the store and expand the job-training program.

For American businesses, the Dollar store experience also highlights the risks and commitment required as more companies become involved in remaking the US welfare system.

"It's easy to be philosophical and global and talk about what's wrong," says Cal Turner Jr., head of the Dollar General Corp. "I'm proud of our company for saying we're going to dig in this specific instance and make a difference."

The inspiration to build a Dollar General in Nashville came during a 1992 brainstorming session in which city leaders were trying to figure out how to encourage low-income children to stay in school. They could reward them with gift certificates, they thought, perhaps provided by Dollar General. The 3,000-store discount chain is headquartered here and has set up literacy programs in 18 states.

If we build it ...

"And then someone said, 'Wait, there's no Dollar General store for miles around where these people live. Where would they spend their certificates,'" recalls Andrea Conte, the mayor's wife and a volunteer at a school in the public-housing neighborhood.

From that, a plan emerged to build a retail store in the Sam Levy housing complex, one of the city's most crime-ridden, and use the facility as a training ground for those on their way into the work force. They would attach a classroom to the store, where people could earn their GEDs and learn the work skills they would put into practice on-site. There, they could tackle everyday work challenges in a supportive, forgiving environment.

The project moved quickly from concept to reality. Dollar General was interested. The city's housing authority wangled a federal grant that paid for construction. In one year, store and training center were up and running.

The local YWCA was an equal partner with Dollar General in a self-sustaining arrangement, where the earnings covered the cost of paying for "interns," store stock, and learning supplies. Eventually, leaders hope any surpluses will fund community grants. Last year, the number and nature of participants changed when the program became part of the state's welfare-reform plan. In the first 10 months of the new arrangement, 130 welfare workers found jobs.

Dollar General's Turner remembers his trepidation in the early days. He runs a publicly traded company that can't afford to have even one store be a drain on profits.

"I wanted zero publicity," he says, "because I wanted to be able to fold our tent and fade into the sunset if this failed. [Public-housing neighborhoods] are deadly locations for retailing. We knew that. I guess we were just driven by the shame of knowing that people in this neighborhood needed us."

By all accounts, the Dollar General store has been a beacon of hope in the neighborhood, and Donna Sneed's experience illustrates why. Three years ago, Ms. Sneed was in her 20s, a mother of six, and a Sam Levy resident on welfare. It took her eight months to earn her GED and complete the Dollar General-YWCA training program. Once she was out, though, her life changed dramatically. She was hired by the program to recruit other participants and teach a life-skills course. She's now off welfare and out of public housing. "People were like, if you can do it, I can too," Sneed says.

Duplicating success

The partnership was so successful that a second store-learning center was opened in Nashville. Last year, a similar partnership began in Columbia, S.C. Other programs are in the works in Knoxville, Tenn., Mobile, Ala., and possibly St. Louis and Pittsburgh.

But progress at the original Nashville store appeared lost when it was set afire by youths last August amid anger after a white policeman killed a black man in the Sam Levy complex.

"I cried," says Sneed. "It was like everything we'd worked for had gone up in smoke. I didn't even think about rebuilding, I just thought, 'It's all done and over with.' "

But others turned their attention to rebuilding right away. Ms. Conte met with a neighborhood group the next day. They decided to raise money to rebuild at least part of the store, staging fish fries, barbecues, and bake sales if that's what it took.

They also sent two representatives to Turner in hopes of persuading him to support the effort. "I saw the feeling in those ladies," he says. "I knew that having brought hope in their community, we couldn't take it away now. I knew it would be worse to not go back than never to have gone in the first place."

With Turner's commitment, things began moving quickly. A telethon was arranged that raised $69,000 that day, with pledges for tens of thousands more. The group hoped to raised $75,000 to cover half of the cost of the inventory that was uninsured and lost in the fire. Today, they've raised more than $100,000, and expect more to come. Plans are under way to add community services with the money, such as a much-needed laundromat. Construction on the store is set to begin early next year.

But more than the money, the tragedy has had unexpected, positive consequences. The store created a unity of purpose within the neighborhood that has now expanded to the city at large. Groups who were unaware of the program, are now offering to help. New citywide support for the neighborhood may ease tensions with police and begin to break down racial barriers, some say.

"There are always people who want peace and want things to happen," Conte says. "But so many times that voice is drowned out by the negative ones. In this case, it wasn't. And that's very unusual."

Report On Welfare To Work

Like the Dollar General Corp., more companies are turning to welfare recipients to fill job openings. The Welfare to Work Partnership, a group founded in May 1997 by 105 companies, is the most significant effort so far, working to hire those on welfare rolls without displacing existing employees. To date, some 2,500 companies have joined the partnership.

This week, the US Chamber of Commerce announced that its 3,000 local chapters will urge corporate members to hire people on welfare. Since the welfare-reform bill was signed into law 11 months ago, welfare caseloads have dropped by 1.9 million.

A Coopers & Lybrand survey reports 60 percent of the fastest-growing companies were interested in hiring welfare recipients. But only 26 percent had taken steps.

Companies participating in the welfare-to-work program include:

* UPS - 2,500 former welfare recipients hired.

* United Airlines - 388 welfare-to-work hirings.

* Cessna Aircraft Co. - 250 workers from welfare rolls now earn $12 an hour.

* Smith Barney - 40 former welfare recipients in full-time jobs, leading the way among white-collar industries.

Source: Wire services

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