During the summer of 2017, I travelled throughout France. Now I am sharing the stories of the commons I met along the way, never knowing what I would find in advance. These articles were originally published in French here: Commons Tour 2017. The English translations are also compiled in this Commons Transition article.

“Les Ateliers” in Castres: from dream to reality

If there’s one common that I want to present to you, it’s this one! I was fortunate enough to be able to attend its conception, so it’s moving to see, a few years later, that the baby has grown up well and is working like a charm.

What is it all about? The “Les Ateliers” cluster, located in Castres in Tarn, is a place dedicated to the development of sustainable economy. It is almost 4000m², located just a stone’s throw from the city centre, fitted out to accommodate a whole lot of projects in connection with the Social and Solidarity Economy (ESS): a shop of local producers, a restaurant that buys from them, a recycling plant, a coworking area, offices and spaces for rent, etc.

Barely a year after its opening, it looks like this place has been part of the landscape for ages. However, it took time, energy, creativity and the concerted actions of an entire collective to make it happen.

The story begins in the late 1990s. Pierre has been an entrepreneur and head of the family textile business for 20 years, inherited from his father and grandfather. Over the years, he contributed to the company’s growth from 40 to 250 employees. Then suddenly, the European borders opened up, especially to the Chinese market. It didn’t take long for customers, seduced by half-price deals, to desert them and for the banks to let go of the company. By the end of 2008, its fate was sealed: first liquidation and then dismissals. “Humanly, it happened with a lot of respect, no one was responsible for the situation, but it was very hard for everyone” Pierre says.

Once unemployed, the entrepreneur, long interested in the operation of cooperatives and looking for a way to reinvent, started a Master’s degree in Social and Solidarity Economics at the University of Toulouse. As part of his training, he was asked to present a project. It was then that he imagined this pillar…

It turns out that the building dedicated to the logistics of his former business had miraculously escaped liquidation thanks to a tenant who had come to set up shop one month before the auction! Of course, you had to have some imagination at that time to think that the place could accommodate something other than shelves of abandoned lockers. I visited the place when it was still an industrial wasteland, I can tell you that it was very impressive and sad to walk the long empty hallways lit by pale neon lights, and the sheds haunted by mannequins.

In Pierre’s mind, things were very clear: this project would be collective, or it would not be. As of August 2011, the dynamics took shape in the form of an association, with the participation of Regate and Regabat (two cooperatives for activity and employment of the territory), the IES (a regional cooperative for solidarity financing), and the CRESS (regional chamber of the social and solidarity economy).

The first project presentation meeting in October 2011 gathered some 50 interested parties. Since the family tradition had not disappeared with the company, Jean, Pierre’s son, started the feasibility study with a small 6-month contract financed by the European Union. Things moved along relatively quickly, given the scale of the project:

  • 2012/13: Etic, the real estate company, which creates, finances and manages office and retail spaces dedicated to social change actors, becomes a partner and finances the project;
  • 2013/14: Selected by LaboESS as the model project for the “Territorial Pillar of Economic Cooperation” (PTCE), alongside 23 other projects; and the building permit is submitted;
  • 2015: the “Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations” (a French public sector financial institution) also joins the project; the association “Roule ma poule“, the premise of the future local producers’ store, is launched; and work begins!
  • 2016: the building is completely renovated, the residents settle in, and the various projects open one by one: the restaurant, the shop of producers, the textile shop, and so on.

The association then transformed into a SCIC (Cooperative society of collective interest), with 2 co-managers, about 50 partners (individuals and structures), 11 employees and one person performing civic service. SCIC governance operates on the principle of “1 person = 1 vote”. “There is also room for communities, but there are no volunteers at the moment” says Pierre.

If I wanted to present this project to you, of course it is because I was personally involved in its start-up, and the energy deployed by Pierre, Jean and the collective impressed me very much. But it is also because today, Les Ateliers seems to me to be an exemplary achievement of “commons”, or rather, several interlocking commons.

In terms of buildings, the property owner Etic now owns the place, ensuring the project’s longevity. In the cooperative, the functioning of governance allows everyone to become involved and feel that they are part of the initiatives. Even within the structure, freelancers installed in the co-working space have recently decided to meet under the brand name “Les Ateliers de la Com” to answer calls for bids together.

Of course, there are experiments at all levels, so everything is not without risk and decisions change with experience. Although profitable activities partially fund activities that do not finance themselves, the economic model is still seeking to be refined. Many services are and have been provided free of charge. At this level, the cooperative seeks to develop partnerships with institutions in order to be supported by demonstrating the impact and interest of the project for the territory.

As for the general spirit, Pierre said it best: “After 20 years of classical entrepreneurship, I discovered another approach. In the SSE community, these are not the same human relationships. For example, ethical funders are listening to us and looking for solutions with us. I have always tried to have this state of mind in my company, and my desire to show that you can do things differently has come true. The big difference, as an entrepreneur, is that I felt supported by the partners and surrounded by the collective. Employees are partners, and everyone is motivated to move the project forward.

And now, with great serenity, Pierre has just retired…even if he doesn’t rule out lending a helping hand from time to time 🙂

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