Laundromats proposed as immigrant welcome centers

The Charlotte City Council’s new effort to make the community more welcoming to immigrants could get a boost from a Latin American Coalition proposal to open a string of neighborhood laundromats that double as immigrant welcome centers.

Coalition leaders unveiled the idea late last week at the Foundation for the Carolinas during an event that hoped to recruit backers. The cost of opening the first laundromat will be in excess of $400,000, though organizers hope to reduce costs with corporate gifts.

Backers for the idea already include the Community Catalyst Fund and the Reemprise Fund, two grant-making entities that have provided a collective $95,000 to help the Latin American Coalition further develop the concept. Former Arts & Science Council President Scott Provancher is also acting as a consultant.

Latin American Coalition leaders would like to see the first laundromat open in one of the city’s largely Latino neighborhoods in 15 months, but they concede much work needs to be done. This includes doing the legal legwork necessary to allow a nonprofit to operate a for-profit subsidiary, something the coalition says is critical to making the welcome centers self-sustaining.

Leaders of the city’s Immigrant Integration Task Force are lauding the plan. The task force was created by the City Council in November to recommend policies that could help all the city’s immigrants become more fully involved in economic and cultural affairs.

Emily Zimmern, who co-chairs the task force, says the Latin American Coalition proposal could result in what amounts to a series of Latino community centers for the city.

“People need the services of a laundromat, so they’re already going to be there. This allows the coalition to deliver information and host meetings while immigrants are waiting,” said Zimmern, who is president of the Levine Museum of the New South.

“It’s also an innovative way to bring together immigrants and long-time members of the community. It’s a natural way to break down barriers. I remember when I lived in an apartment and used the laundromat. You see the same faces and get to know each other.”

Diversifying the uses of laundromats has been tried successfully elsewhere in the country, particularly in New York City, where laundromats feature art classes, yoga and language courses.

However, Jess George of the Latin American Coalition says her plan is to use laundromats as places where a wide variety of Latino immigrant needs can be handled, from legal aid to job searches to referrals for social services.

Effort may expand

Her vision also goes beyond one city. If the laundromats prove a success, she’d like to see them opened in towns across the state, where clusters of immigrant populations have become major parts of the work force.

The coalition has a welcome center at its Central Avenue office that helps about 8,000 people a year. Many of the visitors are undocumented immigrants facing some kind of crisis, George said.

Her hope is that the laundromats will attract a broader group of immigrants, who might be energized into becoming more active for causes that impact their lives.

“Laundromats are already de facto community centers. People are not in and out like at the grocery store. They stay, so why not offer services they need while they’re there?” George said. “They are also recession-proof. People always need to get their laundry done.”

The idea came to her three years ago and started to gain traction when George made a presentation to a social ventures group that included Provancher. He later offered to help launch it.

Recent grants continued the momentum, including $40,000 from the Community Catalyst Fund, to refine and test the concept. Officials with the Reemprise Fund, which gave $55,000, said they believe George’s idea could change Charlotte’s dealings with the growing Latino population.

“Our purpose is to fund new initiatives, high-potential and even outlandish ideas that have the prospect of creating amazing community impacts of unforeseen proportions,” Reemprise Trustee Charlie Elberson wrote of the coalition’s proposal.

“We get to hear about a lot of ideas. Every once in a while – no check that, every once in a great while – someone tells us about a special kind of idea. It’s the kind of idea that in a few short words just lights you up. ... This was one of those ideas.”

Provancher agrees but cautions that new ideas take time to develop and prove. “And they often have to change quite a bit along the way, just like any startup company. This is an idea in search of a way to be successful.”