Sewing the seeds of economic revival in rural Colorado

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Nestled into a group of office buildings along Highway 34 on the eastern plains of Colorado, near the Nebraska border, is the site of something big for rural Colorado. It is here in Wray where the first Rural Colorado Apparel Manufacturing – or RCAM – center has been established.

RCAM-Wray, which will be a light apparel manufacturing center, is renting an empty commercial building. Today it’s the tick-tick-ticking of sewing machines that has replaced the sounds of computer keyboards and calculators when Farm Bureau Insurance was located there. Vacant for more than five years, the space now hums with the activity of teams collaborating on sewing projects. Step inside and you find seven employees busily working away, including one full-time manager, who has design and tailoring experience; the others are part-time sewing operators. They include five women and one man with a variety of sewing and tailoring experience, from industrial sewing to quilting; all have a strong work ethic.

“The products produced at RCAM could range from backpacks to tents or women’s fishing and women’s camping gear for ‘glamping’ and all the trends around outdoor leisure/lifestyle,” says Carol Engel- Enright, one of RCAM’s organizers and an internship coordinator and instructor in Colorado State University’s Department of Design and Merchandising. “I think the Wray Center, and others like it, will allow people to launch businesses and certainly get involved in e-commerce.”

Grassroots apparel and lifestyle businesses

RCAM is one of several grassroots apparel and lifestyle business manufacturing efforts underway around Colorado. In this case, it’s about reviving a U.S. cut-and-sew workforce decimated by decades of offshore manufacturers, plus keeping – and growing – jobs here instead of shipping more overseas. In Wray, local economic development professionals are leading the charge of developing a business model framework, educating potential investors and working with interested individuals who want to lead the effort to bring apparel manufacturing back to the U.S., and take the risks of developing a new business.

Training began in early January at the Wray center, with a test of the process, the machines and the workflow. To do that, 200 gift bags were created and used at the on-campus Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising open house in late January. RCAM-Wray is now in its third production run, sewing long-sleeve T-shirts and hoodies with “kangaroo” pockets.

Birth of rural apparel manufacturing

RCAM originated from the 2014 Colorado Apparel Manufacturing Summit, where Julie Worley, the Phillips County economic developer at the time, envisioned shuttered buildings and underutilized workers in their small towns comprising a new workforce of sewers, assemblers and finishers. From there, the project became the brainchild of Engel-Enright and Lisa Elstun, owner of the Fashion Design Center of Denver, a summit sponsor.

The summit included a panel representing six apparel companies. As one panelist noted, they had to develop products 18 months out, because that’s how long it takes to go through the product fulfillment process, and then get them on the ship and through the agents on both sides of the ocean. The panelist added, “We would produce in the U.S., but nobody will work for $10-15 an hour.”

That’s when a couple of northeastern Colorado economic development officers sprang into action. “If we can create jobs in rural communities that pay $10-15 an hour, that makes a difference for us, that makes an impact,” says Darlene Carpio, director of Yuma County Economic Development. “We have people in our local communities who know how to sew, they’ve been in 4-H, and they need jobs.”

From there a community meeting was organized in Haxtun to gauge interest in the community. A few months later, organizers met with county commissioners, Extension agents, workforce development specialists and possible investors. The concept was to identify smaller designers who would be producing hundreds and not tens of thousands of pieces to be sewn, otherwise known as small-batch manufacturing.

CSU steps in to offer assistance

“CSU’s Office of Community and Economic Development suggested we put together an executive summary,” says Engel-Enright. “The RCAM team developed the concept of specialized centers for smaller communities. When we presented the plan to economic development and community leaders it made sense, and the investment by people in each community was possible.”

Engel-Enright’s home department, the Department of Design and Merchandising, part of the College of Health and Human Sciences, is also actively involved with the efforts to build community and the industry connections, and the college has provided funding support for this project.

Ultimately, the Wray center was opened by 10 local investor/partners, who each contributed $10,000. The investors ranged from a retired seed dealer and his wife – who is a retired home economics teacher – to a retired electrician, a nurse, local farmers and a fabric store owner. All have a like-mindedness in doing what’s right for the community, and they all feel it’s a way to diversify the economy in Wray, primarily known for agriculture.

Part of the start-up funds went to purchasing $21,000 worth of industrial sewing equipment. One of the pieces of equipment is a highly computerized machine that specializes in knit fabrics, which could create a niche for this center among Colorado active-wear manufacturers. The idea is to open a network of rural sewing center sites, each offering a specialty-type of clothing or fabric or garment. Similar RCAM centers are currently being considered in Julesburg and Ordway. Technical jobs could follow if a network of centers emerges and interconnections between sites are established.

RCAM functions like any other business

After its initial start-up phase, RCAM functions like a real business: developing realistic budgets, generating revenue, controlling costs and being accountable to investors. And as is the case with any startup, it won’t be easy. There are other needs too – especially when it comes to equipment. The Wray center’s focus has been on knits using flatlock machines – a sewing machine that creates a flat seam with the same appearance inside and out. All three centers will have basic machines that will straight stitch, overlock and coverstitch. But advanced cutting equipment and specialized sewing and finishing machines will be needed for each center to offer unique products.

“We helped Carol Engel-Enright distill her ideas into an actionable business plan that included the structure to take the concept and put it into reality,” says Geniphyr Ponce-Pore, assistant director of the Office of Community and Economic Development – part of the Office of Engagement at Colorado State University. “The Office of Engagement works to support entrepreneurial CSU faculty doing these sorts of projects who have questions and wonder if they have the capacity to make their dream become reality. We can also help bring faculty expertise to communities though our statewide Extension network, so faculty can reach out beyond campus and into communities around the state.”

Extension part of support team

Others at CSU are also getting involved in rural apparel manufacturing. Colorado State University Extension is working with project developers Engel-Enright and Elstun as well as the local stakeholders and business managers to be a part of the support team. “We see our role as perhaps helping to standardize and replicate segments of the employee training on the industrial sewing machines, understanding the work-order specifications and establishing quality-control measures,” says Gisele Jefferson, who is a 4-H, Family and Consumer Sciences Extension agent in northeastern Colorado. “The training curriculum and modules are still being developed, so for now we are content to watch, learn and lend a helping hand.”

But at the heart of this effort is Engel-Enright. “Truly the partnership that exists with CSU is driven by Carol and the Department of Design and Merchandising,” says Yuma County’s Carpio. “They have been engaged from the very beginning, and it is their vision for this project becoming a network throughout rural Colorado that supports economic development – one stitch at a time.”