King Street Laundry is a small space, and on Jan. 15, it was more bustling than usual.
Conversations took place amid the sounds of whirring washers and tumbling dryers. One of the loudest voices belonged to the laundromat’s owners, Andrew Christiansen, who enthusiastically greeted visitors at the door.
Some arrived with baskets of clothes, wondering what all the commotion was about. Others had come looking for employment.
Near the front door was a table filled with pastries and coffee. A team from Working Fields, a staffing agency with a specialty of finding employment for vulnerable populations, was stationed near the door, ready to work with job seekers.
Andrew and Hannah Christiansen purchased the laundromat last year with plans to make it more than just a place for local residents to clean their clothes. When they reopened it last June, they wanted to tackle the problems that led to the laundromat’s closure in 2021.
In December 2021, former owner TJ Riley shut down the business he had owned for 15 years, citing safety concerns.
“I was out of patience for dealing with the crime and the vandalism and the drug use,” Riley said during a recent interview, explaining that the business fell victim to a “perfect storm” of the Covid-19 pandemic, opioid use, and “constraints being placed on the police department.”
The business model of a “predominantly unattended” laundromat became “unbearable,” he said.
“I went down there one day and it was a bunch of vagrants hanging out, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and you know, there was needles in the back corner, and I kind of just had one of those moments of clarity where I said, ‘You know, fuck this,’ and I locked the door. I said, ‘I’m done,’” Riley recalled.
When putting the building up for sale, Riley said he contemplated getting rid of the laundromat and turning the entire building into housing. But, “I really was holding out for somebody that wanted to make the laundromat work.”
Around that time, Andrew Christiansen called to ask Riley about purchasing a laundry machine.
“He said, ‘No, but do you want to come look at the building?’” Andrew Christiansen recalled.
According to city records, the Christiansens bought the building for $435,000.
The Williston couple has taken on the laundromat in their free time. Andrew works remotely for a biotech firm, and Hannah is a birth educator.
After the purchase, the couple had to think about how to “solve some of these essential challenges that led to where it is at that point: closed down, shuttered, inoperable,” Andrew Christiansen said. “We kind of thought maybe there’s a way to try to engender I think a closer connection with the community through a variety of outreach initiatives.”
The Christiansens started contacting local social service agencies to pitch their space as a site for community outreach. One of the early partners was ReSource, a local group that focuses on poverty relief and workforce development. ReSource came up with a training called Hospitality 101, originally set to begin last fall. Postponed because there weren’t enough participants, it’s now scheduled for February.
Nicole Clements, the training manager at ReSource, said when Andrew Christiansen reached out, ReSource had to brainstorm about what kind of program would work in a laundromat.
Aware of the hospitality industry’s struggle to find workers, staff decided to use King Street Laundry as one venue for a hospitality training, which will also take place at a local hotel.
The Christiansens also partnered with Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity to set in motion two programs. Last fall, the couple worked with the community outreach and resource advocacy program to establish a free laundry program for low-income families and those experiencing homelessness. The laundromat has an electronic system through which laundry can be paid for using the program vouchers, EBT cards and other payments.
The second CVOEO program will be rolling out this month. The Financial Futures program will be in the laundry on the third Wednesday of the month for the next three months, according to program director Rachael Goldstein.
Goldstein said the program focuses on long-term planning for those experiencing financial instability. Coaches from the program will conduct outreach at the laundromat.
“We do a variety of outreach in person that has been hard due to the pandemic, and so this is just a step in that direction to meet people literally where they are,” Goldstein said. As an incentive, Goldstein said her program will be paying for laundry if people sign up for a class or coaching session.
“We just thought it was a really creative approach to outreach,” Goldstein said.
Two employees of Working Fields, which ran the Jan. 15 job fair at the laundromat, took notice of that creative outreach and approached the Christiansens about a program, according to Daryn Forgeron, the agency’s marketing director.
Forgeron said she liked that the space could be used for a small job fair and could also “offer something that is a great value add for our community, which is washing clothes. That’s something that a good portion of our population doesn’t always have access to, especially for free, so it’s a built-in great value.”
The Christiansens said they have also been in touch with Vermont Works for Women about a career development seminar. In October, they hosted a local lawyer, who held a discussion forum at the laundromat about the nearby Champlain Parkway project.
They also hope to find an organization to implement a wash/dry/fold service that would be run as a social enterprise. Many laundromats have such a service, but the Christiansens hope to start one that helps people facing barriers to employment. All proceeds from the service would go back to the organization, although so far they haven’t found anyone willing to take on the project.
While the Christiansens see “winning hearts and minds,” according to Andrew Christiansen, as half of a holistic way to make a formerly troubled space safe, they’ve also invested in actual security. While they are trying to avoid an “aggressive staff” presence, they have upgraded the security system and monitor the space closely at all hours. Andrew Christiansen said he can communicate through the camera system and has had to give out warnings and ask people to leave.
But it’s a goal of theirs that, by “filling the space with positive, constructive activity,” according to Andrew Christiansen, they build a sense of “collective ownership among the community and perhaps some self-policing.”
To their partners at local organizations, that approach is a worthy cause.
“I think that is how you change communities — by providing support, providing opportunities for change, and paths for people to build a life that they want rather than abandoning places and giving up on people,” Forgeron said.
Visit King Street Laundry’s website at https://72kingstreetlaundry.com/.