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Hidden Treasure In Abandoned Buildings: Changing Philly's Demolition Game

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) --- Greg Trainor used to take the bus to work, two sawhorses under his arms and a hiking pack strapped tight to his back, loaded up with sledgehammers, crowbars, hammers, and shovels. People looked at him like he was crazy.

Two years later, the founder of the Philadelphia Community Corps drives a pickup truck to the demolition site. He has three staff members and job training partnerships with Mural Arts, YouthBuild, and PowerCorps. The job training nonprofit he started in 2014 has graduated 18 students into OSHA-certified deconstruction technicians in the past year. He's opened a 20,000 square foot warehouse in Kensington with classrooms and space for construction projects. And Greg and his job trainees have salvaged more than 50 tons of wood, metal, and building material from the bones of Philadelphia's abandoned buildings.

Greg Trainor of the Philadelphia Community Corps holding a piece of salvaged decking. (Credit: Tom Rickert)

Greg stands on what's left of a roof in Fairmount, holding a piece of the Douglas fir decking that covers the real prize: more than a dozen 26-foot southern yellow pine beams crossing the garage underneath. "It's the kind of big thick lumber that we really like to salvage," he says, "because that's the old growth lumber that can be turned into a variety of things like furniture."

It's day two of a three-day demolition project at 20th and Cambridge, removing asphalt and rock, prying up decking and carting old wood to be sold for reuse. Greg and his team are working with a general contractor hired to do renovations on the building.

"They brought us in as a subcontractor, just for the roof removal," he says. "It's basically like, they could have hired a demolition company to take this roof off and trash it, but, instead of doing that, they bring us in, we salvage the building materials, and they get a tax deduction for donating the building materials to a 501c3."

Greg says the Philadelphia Community Corps is essentially an environmental alternative to hiring a demolition contractor:

"Instead of doing that, they get to say we're partnering with a non profit. They're employing seven times as many people as the demolition contractor would have employed. They're keeping 90% of the materials out of the landfill. And the tax deductions sometimes even cover the cost of hiring us, so we're essentially a free building material removal service."

If it sounds too good to be true, that's a reaction Greg's used to:

"Every time we explain what we do to a demolition contractor, they can't believe it," he says. "Right now they're paying to throw this stuff out, and all they got to do is drop it off at our warehouse, in a reusable condition and in organized fashion, and they get a tax deduction."

A pile of salvaged wood behind a rusty fence at the Philadelphia Community Corps' Fairmount worksite. (Credit: Tom Rickert)

Trashing reusable materials isn't just bad business for contractors, Greg says. It's bad for the environment as well:

"So what we're trying to do is make this make business sense. Not just to change the lives of these young guys by creating more job opportunities, we're trying to make this make sense for an entire industry to move in a more sustainable direction."

Those young guys Greg talks about are the Philadelphia Community Corps job trainees. They learn the trade in the classroom and get hands on experience in demolition and deconstruction at the work site.

"It's a lot of problem solving," says managing director Alex McNeil, trading in the spreadsheets and budget projections for a day of hard hats and a pry bars. "All our trainees get OSHA certified, tool maintenance and safety, how to use a variety of different tools. It's really just good entry level job training for any building trade."

The students come from the Philadelphia Community Corps' partner programs, YouthBuild Philadelphia and PowerCorps PHL. After they graduate the program, PCC tries to help the newly OSHA certified deconstruction technicians find jobs in the industry.

"We have people who go on to work as general contractors who work in demolition, who work in carpentry," Alex says. "You can just go in a lot of different directions with it."

Alex McNeil, Philadelphia Community Corps managing director, gets ready to hand salvaged wood down to job trainees. (Credit: Tom Rickert)

In the last year, Greg and Alex have worked with 30 YouthBuild trainees.

"18 of those graduated YouthBuild, and of the 18 that graduated, we found employment for nine of them," Greg says. "That 50% job placement is what we're most proud of. Most job training programs are hovering around 10 to 20%."

Greg attributes a lot of his success getting his trainees jobs to the time they spend on live worksites alongside contractors:

"We have lots of opportunity to hook our guys up with jobs in the construction and demolition industries."

Lanard Hill and Aineias Clanton graduated the program last year, but they're back with the Philadelphia Community Corps at the job site in Fairmount -- a milestone for the young nonprofit.

"These two guys in particular were two of the best guys from last year, and we said we want to keep these guys on with us," Greg says. "So they're actually the first job training graduates that we hired back just to continue working with us."

Lanard Hill, a YouthBuild graduate and Philadelphia Community Corps job trainee, standing over a pile of decking. (Credit: Tom Rickert)

Lanard met Greg as a student in his building deconstruction class at YouthBuild.

"I was one of his best students," he says with a grin. "Greg gave me my first job when I graduated out of YouthBuild. I was doing demolition at the old West Philly High School building."

Lanard's also a graduate of the brick layering program at Job Corps, but he enjoys taking down the bricks just as much.

"Right now I just got a lot of options," he says. "I'm happy."

Sometimes the Philadelphia Community Corps is hired by a contractor to do demolition work on a big job, like the job Lanard worked at West Philadelphia High School. On another day, it's one of Philadelphia's more than 40,000 vacant properties. They salvage any building materials that can be re-purposed, like wood, windows, metal, doors, and bricks. Sometimes they find treasure in the skeleton of a blighted property, like the valuable floor joists at the job site in Fairmount.

These southern yellow pine joists will be salvaged by the Philadelphia Community Corps. (Credit: Tom Rickert)

Salvaged materials are hauled in Greg's truck to the Philadelphia Community Corps' new warehouse in Kensington, at Front and Erie.

"We refer to it as a building material reuse center, because it's where we bring all the things that our job trainees salvage," Greg says. It's where most of our funding for this organization comes from."

Being a young nonprofit means PCC doesn't have a lot of fundraising momentum behind it, and doesn't have access to many of the grants given to similar organizations.

"Usually you have to exist for about three years before you're eligible for grants," Greg says. "Which is difficult because most job training programs are funded by grants, that's how they hire their labor."

One of Greg's main goals for the Corps is to reach the point where it generates all the cash it needs itself.

"The idea is that we want to have value added investments, things that are actually going to generate more revenue for us," he says. "We're a very market oriented nonprofit."

The organization is in the final days of a $25,000 fundraising campaign on Indiegogo, a winter drive that, if successful, could mean they reach that goal of sustainability.

"So we're talking about buying a table saw, band saw, planer… And that's so we can start making things like tables," Greg says. "We're going to build a workshop where we're going to take these things, like these big floor joists that we salvage. We're going to start teaching our students how to build furniture out of reclaimed building materials."

Job trainee Aineias Clanton hands Greg Trainor pieces of decking to be loaded on the truck and taken to the Philadelphia Community Corps warehouse. (Credit: Tom Rickert)

For now, most of the spoils of deconstruction get sold.

"That's what funds our job training program," he says, "selling these materials that these guys are salvaging right now."

Some of PCC's customers are artists and do-it-yourselfers.

"But there's also a lot of carpenters who make their whole living out of this." It's popular right now, Greg says, to make things from recycled lumber. It's green, and vintage, and sexy, "but it's also better quality material. This is old-growth lumber. It's denser fibers. It's stronger wood. You can do more with it than the new stuff that's coming out of tree farms nowadays."

There's a lot of truth to the saying that we don't make things the way we used to, he says. "So it's why you gotta keep it out of a landfill. Cause it's not going to be made like this again."

"This is something I believe can go global," says Aineias Clanton.

The YouthBuild graduate working the job in Fairmount is wearing heavy coveralls and carrying thick stacks of reclaimed decking to be stacked neatly in the truck.

"Hopefully someone will buy it, reuse it, something like that, use it for a good purpose."

Aineias Clanton, YouthBuild graduate and Philadelphia Community Corps job trainee hauls Douglas fir decking from the worksite in Fairmout. (Credit: Tom Rickert)

Clanton says he'll work with Greg any time, but he eventually wants to take the salvage and reuse model PCC taught him and open up his own shop:

"It's tying into a lot of things, especially with low-income housing. Get them done, fix them up. For the next person. It's all about passing down for the generation after us."

As for the director of the Philadelphia Community Corps, he's come a long way since 2006, when he was introduced to the salvage model during a demolition trip to the Gulf Coast, after Hurricane Katrina.

Two years later, while studying at Temple University, he thought he could create a similar program here. Six years of startup crash-courses, hard-knocks style, and the 2014 relaunch of the Philadelphia Community Corps was officially, as Greg describes it, "one crazy guy in a basement, surrounded by his tools."

Now he's a crazy guy in an office, still surrounded by his tools, but joined by a small staff and dozens of hard workers learning a trade and preparing to enter the workforce.

"Other cities around the country, especially formerly industrial cities like Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Detroit, have large deconstruction job training programs where the city is hiring these programs to take down their abandoned housing stock," Greg says. "And they're employing a lot of people, and usually the people who need jobs the most. So, we're really excited that we feel like we're finally at that point where we can go to the City of Philadelphia and say, we're a serious program. We're ready for any projects that you throw at us. And we can really scale this program out to employ as many people as we need to for whatever project you can give us."

To contribute to the fundraiser, head to the Philadelphia Community Corps' IndieGoGo page. You can connect with them on Facebook, on Twitter @PhilaCommCorps, or their website.

Like awesome pictures of abandoned buildings? PCC's Instagram is @PhiladelphiaCommunityCorps.

You can follow Tom on Twitter: @teerick.

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