New tool lending library aims to create "chain reaction of beauty" for West Willow neighborhood

Instead of simply grumbling about neighbors not maintaining their lawns properly, residents of Ypsilanti Township's West Willow neighborhood examined barriers that some homeowners face and decided to create a solution: a tool lending library.


"If your house looks bad, mine does too. But if I help you make your house look good, it makes my house look good too," says Darrell Boone, a West Willow resident who has been chosen to help establish the tool lending library and manage it on a volunteer basis.


The building that will house the tool collection when it opens later this month is located on the grounds of the New West Willow Neighborhood Association's (NWWNA) resource center at 2057 Tyler Rd. in Ypsi Township. Roughly the size of a two-car garage, it will house hundreds of tools for all seasons, ranging from rakes, leaf blowers, and a chainsaw to lawn mowers and a snowblower. Tools available for house projects will include a cordless drill, a sander, and saws.


The building will also include a small office space for the lending library manager, with electric power and outlets for charging throughout the building. While some of the details are still being ironed out, the tool lending library should be open to the public by late October, just in time for leaf-raking season.


NWWNA president JoAnn McCollum says the idea for a tool lending library grew from resident comments at the association's monthly meetings.


"Residents were talking about trying to take care of their lawns, having a hard time getting equipment to do so, and frankly not wanting to buy something they'd use only (infrequently)," McCollum says. "Conversations started with wanting to have a better look for people's lawns, and looking into what some of the barriers to that were. The most likely barrier was that the person didn't have the equipment."


Both McCollum and Boone note that this issue often arises when someone transitions from renting to owning a home. While they remember to budget for new home appliances, they often forget that they also have to buy equipment and tools for maintaining the lawn. Boone says he has loaned his lawn mower to new neighbors in such a situation in the past.


"People who come from apartments always had a maintenance crew to take care of things," he says. "But when you get into home ownership, guess who is maintenance? It's you."


McCollum began talking with connections at Habitat for Humanity Huron Valley (HHHV) about the idea, particularly Sarah Teare, director of resident and community engagement for HHHV. Based on those conversations, the neighborhood association acquired a lawn mower, but organizers still had ambitions of creating a more comprehensive tool collection.


About that time, home improvement company Lowe's issued a grant through Habitat International and invited HHHV to apply. The grant was focused on seniors and aging in place, so HHHV staff talked with older community residents about what sorts of tools might be useful. HHHV received a $6,000 grant from Lowe's, allowing the organization to buy a batch of tools in late 2017.


"We ended up purchasing some lawn mowers that were less bulky and easier for older adults to use," Teare says. "We also looked at very specific gardening equipment and other tools that are easier for older adults to hold or grasp."


However, the question remained: How would a tool lending library be operated?


At first, Teare and McCollum thought they could buy an inexpensive Rubbermaid shed and store tools there, but it wasn't long before the shed was bursting at the seams. They knew they needed more space and possibly a manager to create a functional lending program.


About that time, HHHV community development coordinator Ceara Murtagh found out about a grant funding opportunity through waste management and recycling company Republic Services' National Neighborhood Promise program.


Teare says the grant funding team from Republic loved the idea of building a home for the tool lending library and gave HHHV a total of $50,000. Part of that money went toward a different home renovation project, but about $37,500 went to the tool lending library. The grant covered not only the physical structure and foundation but also construction oversight and project management.


"They have been extremely involved from the very beginning of the grant award," Teare says. "The regional manager came out to almost all our planning sessions, and came out for our first build day on the project site in mid-August."


The list of organizations partnering with the neighborhood association and HHHV grew when student engineers from the University of Michigan (U-M) offered to organize the tool lending library building through the U-M student chapter of the Institute for Operations Research and Management Sciences (INFORMS).


"They're helping us with the interior, on how to best lay out and store the tools, so people have easy access and making sure we're making the best use of the space," Teare says.


McCollum notes that the neighborhood association's building and the grounds are owned by Ypsilanti Township, and the township has also been a great partner in the effort.


"The township has really given us the thumbs-up," McCollum says. "They have brought their experts in to help with things like figuring out if we can put water in or not and how to get electricity to the building. They've been very helpful."


The last piece of the puzzle was finding someone to manage the lending library, and McCollum says they were lucky to find Boone. He is a longtime neighborhood resident who has experience as a mechanic, including working on small engines such as those in lawn mowers and snow blowers.


Boone says part of his job will be not just managing the library but doing some education so that the library can continue to serve residents for many years. For instance, before lending out a lawn mower, he will ask borrowers to "walk the grounds" and look for large sticks, stumps, rocks, or other obstacles on their property that could damage the lawn mower.


Boone has also trained his adult son, Demarcus Boone, in many of the same skills, so Demarcus can act as a backup if his father is unable to manage the lending library at some point. Demarcus says he'd like to see the neighborhood solicit more resident input, maybe through a suggestion box, on what tools residents would like and what they think is fair in terms of fees or penalties.


HHHV staff say the tool lending library will grow even more as Darrell Boone collects feedback from area residents and suggests more tools that should be added to the collection.


Demarcus says he thinks the lending library will be well-utilized by residents once word gets out that it's available.


"I do believe our neighborhood can become a better neighborhood when everyone works together," he says.


McCollum says neighborhood association officials are considering charging a "nominal fee" to cover maintenance of the tools. Hours of operation, security, and policies are still being worked out.


Darrell Boone says he already thinks West Willow is a great place to live and he hopes the tool lending library will inspire his neighbors to make it even better.


"We can do it," he says. "If one person (beautifies their property), then another one does (and) we'll have a chain reaction of beauty."


A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the tool lending library is scheduled for 4-7 p.m. Oct. 24, and all area residents are invited. Updates about the tool lending library and other NWWNA events are available via the association's Facebook page.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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