In the most ambitious building project in a generation, the LightHouse has purchased a massive new employment and training building in the East Bay. The 3 million dollar San Leandro complex is seven times the footprint of our San Francisco Headquarters building and when finally built out will employ up to 60 blind workers, supervisors and teachers. When built out more blind employees will be working at this single building than at any other building in California.
How the LightHouse found, secured and outfitted our new employment building is a study in collaboration and community connections. Over the last two years we identified an opportunity to expand our existing product line by collaborating with other partners, requiring a building quadruple the size of the one we’ve operated – and paid monthly rent for — in West Oakland for 23 years. We set competing teams of commercial real estate brokers scouring the East Bay looking for sites that were close to BART and AC transit and yet still in a 24-hour safe location.
For a year we found many good commercial buildings but none which were affordable and yet safe. Eventually Tim and David Tran, our commercial brokers from Fremont’s Ivy Group began literally knocking on doors of quality commercial buildings which weren’t even listed for sale. That’s when they met Charles Travers who owned the building we have just purchased at 14680 Washington Avenue in San Leandro. Mr. Travers bought the building with his father four decades ago and over the years has housed many light industrial tenants. One of the building’s claims to fame is that it was the site of the original Shakey’s Pizza restaurant.
Mr. Travers immediately saw the public spirit of our project – building a place where blind workers can perform on federal and private contracts with a wide variety of products and services. Before long he was visiting our existing West Oakland factory, armed with power meters to ensure that our machinery could operate on the electrical power of the proposed new building. It turns out that Mr. Travers is a lifelong philanthropist, serving on the UC Berkeley Foundation, the Commonwealth Club Board of Directors, and with deep interests in the SPCA and other worthy causes. As we got to know one another in the spirit of philanthropy, Mr. Travers made an outstanding tax-deductible charitable donation by lowering the purchase price of the building by $550,000. This was the first of a string of many of his kind contributions to our effort, from replacing a roll-up door to painting and repairing a myriad of small details – all without charge. This month we took possession of the building and moved our 23-year factory operations into it in record speed.
Help and donations from the wider community are now pouring in. As Levi-Strauss remodeled its San Francisco headquarters they donated about $100,000 worth of high-end office furniture to the new building, instantly outfitting a half-dozen offices, and the break room, conference center and file storage. The City of San Leandro is constructing an accessible pedestrian signal at a nearby corner to aid in crossing busy Washington Avenue. Various energy conservation organizations and contractors in San Leandro are interested in helping with energy-efficient lighting and installing additional skylights. And many business people have expressed interest in joining a new Community Advisory Council for the San Leandro employment center. Things have never looked so bright for such operations.
LightHouse staff planned, coordinated and executed to make the move possible. Plant manager Skip Foster devised innovative ways to move dozens of tons of machinery, raw materials and storage racks and place them in an efficient manner in the new location. LightHouse IT Manager Brian Hardy spent days wiring up telephone and internet connectivity in the half-acre building, consuming a half-mile of cable and mounting conduit and cable runs two stories in the air from the cab of a cherry picker. And LightHouse Chief Operating Officer Jerry Bernstein coordinated a small army of painters, carpet installers, locksmiths, plumbers, carpenters and others to do the initial build-out and habitability of the site. Congratulations to all who have gone above and beyond the call of duty in our first month of operation.
The new building is as long as two football fields and sports a unique Filipino restaurant at one end. On Friday and Saturday nights the place is full of people enjoying karaoke with its own dance floor, full bar and 260-seat capacity. Beyond the restaurant are a series of five large industrial bays, each one containing small business offices. The 26-foot high ceilings give the complex a lofty appearance and will be ideal for massive storage of raw materials and inventory.
So what’s the plan after our move-in is complete? Partnering, partnering, partnering. The LightHouse is in active planning with the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind to bring new types of manufacturing to San Leandro. Seattle Lighthouse has a half-century of experience with producing demanding products for the federal government, the Boeing Company and others and will share its industrial development and management with us in San Leandro. The National Industries for the Blind (NIB) organization is also exploring ways it can support new government and private contracts in our space. We’re also partnering with other private firms and organizations to bring an accessible contact center to the building. And we may find new opportunities to connect with Bay Area high-tech firms to jointly produce goods or services direct from our new location. That connectivity will be a hallmark of our San Leandro operation, and if you know of a business opportunity please don’t hesitate to contact us directly to make the connection.
The vast space will also make possible new teaching and training opportunities. We are exploring uses of the building from traditional tech training to after-school tutoring and art studio possibilities. The open-ended nature of so much space has sparked the imagination of our rehab and community services staff and we’re certain we can build innovative programs there which match our community’s real needs.
We still need many things and many partners. We’ll need painting contractors to do new painting of our concrete floor. We’ll need a community organization to build a lovely outdoor protective enclosure for employee guide dogs. We’ll want the services of carpenters, plumbers, and people familiar with industrial processes. And in particular we are looking for several donated large box vans with which we can haul supplies and equipment.
By purchasing the building the LightHouse underscores that we will be vigorously in the employment business far into the future, and our strong footprint in the East Bay is a natural reflection of the fact that for many decades the majority of LightHouse training clients actually live there. Look ahead for a grand Grand Opening party in the fall of 2012!