Armed with a $246,000 grant from the state Department of Environmental Quality, former University of Nebraska College of Architecture Dean Cecil Steward paid rent, bought equipment, hired part-time employees and opened a second-hand construction materials store on West P Street.

Five years later, the store has expanded and made good on its goals to save space in the landfill, preserve natural resources and provide a supply of reusable materials for low- to moderate-income remodelers and others.

By ALGIS J. LAUKAITIS

Lincoln Journal Star

If for no other reason, stop at EcoStores Nebraska just to see the wall of doors.

Fifty-four wooden doors make up an 87-by-15-foot wall that is a partition inside the warehouse at 530 W. P St.

The store never runs out of doors -- people bring them in like they were yesterday's fashion.

"We say no to a lot of doors," manager Steve Liechti said. "We push ourselves to reuse."

EcoStores Nebraska also accepts kitchen cabinets, shelving, carpet and flooring, windows, plumbing and electrical fixtures, bathtubs, landscaping stones -- and the kitchen sink.

No junk or appliances, please. Other outlets will take those.

Founded in 2005, the store collects and resells salvageable construction materials and equipment at 50 percent or less of their retail cost. Donations are tax-deductible.

The store's unofficial motto: You have money, we can deal.

Five years later, the nonprofit business is thriving, said Cecil Steward, founder of the store and president of its sponsor, the Joslyn Castle Institute for Sustainable Communities.

The idea behind EcoStores Nebraska is simple: help reduce the amount of construction and demolition waste that ends up in landfills and create a supply of reusable materials, thereby saving natural resources.

"If we all made better choices at the point of purchase, there wouldn't be as much waste as there is," Steward said.

Liechti and Steward estimate they've kept more than 1.5 million pounds of mostly building materials out of the Bluff Road Landfill.

City Recycling Coordinator Gene Hanlon said their efforts benefit the city and taxpayers because the store helps save on the cost and disposal in the landfill.

Hanlon said he wished more people would take advantage of EcoStores Nebraska services. He said the store was a great alternative for low- to moderate-income people looking for low-cost products for home remodeling.

EcoStores Nebraska is patterned after material re-use centers in Portland, Minneapolis and other metropolitan areas. It is not affiliated with the ReStore outlets operated by Habitat for Humanity.

The founders had planned to have branches in Grand Island and Kearney, but, mostly because of the sluggish economy, that hasn't happened.

"Even though we are plural named, we are the only one," Liechti said.

EcoStores Nebraska got its start with a $246,000 grant from the state Department of Environmental Quality. The money helped pay the rent, buy equipment and hire some part-time employees.

"The first year is always iffy, and it's as iffy now as it was then," Liechti said.

The store takes in about $250,000 annually, Steward said. That may seem like a lot, but it doesn't cover all of the labor, insurance and overhead costs, he said.

"The insurance industry hasn't figured out the community value in what we do," Steward said, referring to high liability rates the store has to pay.

In a throwaway society, getting people to donate and reuse materials was tough at first, but contractors and the public now drop off materials routinely, and the store has built up a steady clientèle.

Liechti said they had to fight the image that a reuse center was a flea market where people could drop off anything from books to furniture.

"We did not want to be a flea market," he said.

Landlords with rental properties top the list of customers, according to Liechti. But the store also gets plenty of visits from people with older homes, craftspeople looking for old wood, rural residents needing low-cost materials to build or repair outbuildings, historic preservationists and artists searching for unique materials.

Liechti said one artist recently bought 38 cabinet doors to paint.

Store space has grown from 10,000 to 15,000 square feet, plus a few acres of outside storage where visitors can hunt for pavers and landscaping rock -- when they're in stock.

Inventory changes daily.

"A number of people come in two or three times per week," Steward said. "That's because we don't know and they don't know what we have."

Home improvement stores might bring in a truckload of discontinued stock or a contractor might drop off the guts of a kitchen, including cabinets, granite counter tops, dishwasher and stove. The store had a beautiful set last week priced at $4,000 and valued at about $18,000.

Part of the inventory comes from the deconstruction of homes and other places. Think dismantling a building piece by piece.

EcoStores has a crew that will go in and strip a home of usable wood and fixtures like a slow-moving school of piranhas.

Steward, retired dean of the University of Nebraska College of Architecture, believes the deconstruction end of the business is here to stay because more people are moving into high-density urban areas where older homes are removed to make way for new buildings. A good example is revitalization being done with the Antelope Valley Project near downtown.

EcoStores Nebraska's first deconstruction project was the Walton Trail Co. in Walton. Last year, employees tackled eight homes and one apartment building. Sometimes they get help from volunteer  groups and people ordered by courts to do community service.

Steward believes the downturn in the economy has helped the store's business in the past two years.

"I think our timing was excellent but pretty accidental," he said. 

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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