(Caption: The NEON Property Maintenance program invests in human capital. Sheltonn Johnson, manager of program)
Sheltonn Johnson now sees plants that he used to walk by every day without ever noticing. He is familiar with different ways of preventing stormwater runoff and has hands-on experience in measuring and excavating a raingarden.
These are some benefits of a partnership between Metro Blooms and the Northside Economic Opportunity Network (NEON), a nonprofit that promotes small business development in North Minneapolis. For the past three years, Metro Blooms and NEON have been working together to provide opportunities for fledgling businesses trying to gain a toehold in the field of landscaping.
They have done so through a program called NEON Property Maintenance, a social enterprise that provides small businesses with work opportunities in janitorial work, lawn care, snow removal and other services. The work comes through contracts with entities that include governmental agencies, private companies and nonprofits like Metro Blooms.
“Metro Blooms has been our champion as far as getting us into landscaping and standing with us and walking us through the process of how to do it,” says Johnson, the program manager. “They provide training, support and on-site oversight as well.”
Getting into the marketplace is a common roadblock for many small businesses, observes Stephen Obayuwana, NEON’s director of Business Advising and Capital Funds. The property maintenance program is an effort to fill this gap. The objective is for the businesses, as contractors, to gain some experience and training and to make contacts, so that eventually they can procure work independently. In the future, Obayuwana foresees these businesses coming back to provide work for others following a similar path. “It’s an ecosystem that we want to create,” he says.
NEON and Metro Blooms started working together in 2016, on a clean water and environmental justice project to install bioswales in Minneapolis’ Harrison neighborhood. NEON crews helped excavate the raised, hard-packed boulevards where ash trees had been removed due to the emerald ash borer. Then they helped install bioswales, shallow depressions planted with deep-rooted, mostly native plants, to divert and soak in stormwater, preventing runoff, one of the main causes of water pollution.
NEON has supported projects for Metro Blooms ranging from basic maintenance to larger landscape renovations. While many of the crew members come with lawncare or some landscaping experience, most are new to raingardens and other green landscaping practices. Johnson, who supervises on site, says he and the crews learn a lot by working hands on with Metro Blooms staff. Some crew members have also participated in Metro Blooms’ sustainable landcare training to gain expertise in weed and native plant identification.
The goal is for the overall experience to provide program participants with training and knowledge that can help them market their own services independently in the future. Says Johnson: “These small-business owners are raising their level of understanding, building capacity to go out and deploy their skills successfully in the marketplace.”
– Aleli Balagtas, Metro Blooms Reporter, firstname.lastname@example.org