Union Gewerbehof expands
Self-help for self-employment
Union Gewerbehof is a value-based enterprise centre in Dortmund, at the eastern end of Germany’s Ruhr industrial area. It rents out 5,000 square metres of workspace, supporting 250 jobs. Started in 1986 by a group of unemployed people who squatted a semi-disused steelworks building, it is now financially self-supporting and forms the nucleus of a neighbourhood renewal scheme which could see it double in size over the next three years.
Unemployed people seize the initiative
Socially useful production
The group set about the job of developing business ideas. This was the era when there was much talk of the conversion of arms factories to social useful production, by such movements as the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards’ committee. It is no surprise that many of the initial business ideas were ecological in nature, and included a building firm and a shop selling ecological building materials – the Ökomarkt. Ironically, today both of those businesses have disappeared, but not because they have failed – far from it. The building firm, whose first job was the extensive renovation of the Gewerbehof itself, has moved away to larger premises. As for the Ökomarkt, it is a victim of its own success: today, environmentally friendly building materials are a mainstream market, and are on sale in the city centre, so there is no need for premises in the Gewerbehof. Some of these new businesses gained support from job creation or economic development measures.
Raising the capital
The group started as an informal association, but renovating the premises required a loan, and that meant creating a legal structure. The first choice would have been a co-operative, but at that time the established Genossenschaft movement would not admit them. It adhered strictly to the principle that co-operatives are mutual aid organisations, not organisations with a social mission – a position that today has been softened. The centre was therefore incorporated as a share company – the Union Gewerbehof für Umwelt- und Sozialverträgliche Techniken (‘Union Business Centre for Environmentally and Socially Responsible Techniques’). Though it is a GmbH, its constitution embodies several co-operative provisions – for instance one person one vote. Following the model of the workers’ co-operative, membership was open to all those who work for and in the centre. This co-operative structure still applies today, but with the addition that corporate tenants can also become members.
The company raised its capital by selling shares. In a remarkable demonstration of the power of self-help, almost all the capital came from the members themselves – a total of DM 100,500 (€51,000) in 67 shares of DM 1,500 (€767). Remarkably, the founders did not want to approach outside organisations for financial support, and the only part of the capital that was contributed by an organisation was some DM 20,000 invested by an association linked to the trade union.
The renovation was carried out with the help of a grant from the Land of North Rhine-Westphalia of 4 million marks (€2.05m), along with minor assistance from the city’s economic development department. It was complete by 1992, and the slogan “100 jobs for Dortmund” could become a reality.
Over the years, businesses have come and gone. The largest tenant today is a call centre answering enquiries for the Deutsche Bahn and local public transport operators, which employs 100 people. Other relatively large employers are a training centre for deaf people and a car-sharing company. But most of the tenants are micro-enterprises or single self-employed people, many of them in sectors such as training and consultancy. The centre has however housed industrial tenants such as a printing press.
And it is a model that works. With an annual income of around €300,000, the Gewerbehof supports itself financially, and needs no external aid. Rent averages €5 per square metre per month, plus a provision of around €2.30 per month for heat, power, insurance and common services. Crucially, tenants do not need to put up a guarantee, making the centre accessible to entrepreneurs with no capital of their own.
An attractive package for entrepreneurs Union Gewerbehof puts its success down to the following factors: - Close contact between the owners and tenants, which enables the centre to identify trends and act on them quickly - A business-friendly environment with shares meeting rooms, canteen, technical facilities and networking opportunities - A package of services available to make business life easier - Transparent rent and other costs and direct access to the owners in case of financial or other problems - A creative and open atmosphere by virtue of the user mix among different activities and forms of enterprise - Co-operation with the city’s Economic Development Department to enable start-ups that do not fall within specific development clusters to use the centre
A nucleus for neighbourhood renewal
Unemployment and industrial restructuring are no longer such pressing issues as they were when the Gewerbehof was founded 20 years ago. But the centre has an important social role to play in a neighbourhood where 38% of the population is dependent on social welfare payments and 55% is of non-German origin. Mr Nottenbohm finds himself the President of the neighbourhood association Rheinische Straße e.V. The association has a contract with the City of Dortmund for local area improvement (Quartiersmanagement), which involves bringing in local businesses and improving the social situation of the people. Following an EU-wide tender, the association is currently selecting a contractor to manage the contract. The Gewerbehof has the mission to double its size in the coming three years, supporting 100 additional jobs by creating an innovative Business Premises Co-operative (Gewerbeflächengenossenschaft) and doubling the area rented from 5,000 to 10,000 square metres. This will require a switch to a more active style of incubation, as well as a more professional style of management.
- Started as a squat by unemployed people
- A value-based initiative
- A co-operative structure
- Economically self-supporting
- Referrals from Economic Development Department
- No targeting
- Easy terms
- Friendly environment and peer support
- Light touch business support
- Nucleus of neighbourhood improvement scheme
Union Gewerbehof GmbH
Huckarder Straße 12
Tel: +49 231 162041
Fax: +49 231 162798