A New Spin: The Laundry Centers provide clean clothes, community empowerment

Marlena Norris and her family at The Laundry Centers.

The Laundry Centers, a pair of Laundromats on the Westside, are putting a new spin on entrepreneurship and community empowerments.

Located in the English Avenue and Grove Park neighborhoods, The Laundry Centers (or TLC as they are known) were founded by Marlena Norris with the goal of serving as a “community within the community.” Not only can you wash and dry your clothes, but there’s also a community garden and outdoor play area and student tutoring and free education seminars are on the way this summer.

“A lot of really good things are going on – it’s not just about the clean laundry. It’s about the community and what the people in the community deserve. It’s about providing opportunities for economic empowerment and social engagement,” Marlena Norris said.

Three years ago, Norris left her corporate job as a senior executive in finance for InterContinental Hotels Group, Inc. to start TLC as her “encore career.” Her vision quickly extended beyond just an ordinary coin operated self-service laundry to a full-scale laundry service business.

“I found a location near English Avenue, purchased it and never looked back. It fueled a purpose in me that I, frankly, hadn’t recognized in all my years of being driven to protect shareholder value. I am now driven by a need to give back to communities in which TLC operates and be a catalyst for job creation,” Norris said.

Kids use iPads at The Laundry Center while family members do laundry.

Her first step was to change the course set by the former owner, who had paid employees low wages and “milked the business dry.”

“We renovated the bathroom, made cosmetic changes to give the location a fresh new look, raised employee pay and began engaging with the community, which was very receptive,” Norris said, noting that the free cookouts were a big hit, too.

As Norris learned more about the Grove Park community, which experienced a steady decline in population and property conditions over the past 50 years, she believed its residents deserved better.

That’s why she opened a second location last fall just four miles west down the parkway. But unlike her first small strip-mall site, the new TLC stood alone on three acres. Norris gutted and fully renovated the dilapidated corporate laundromat that was a McDonald’s decades ago. It now boasts new energy efficient equipment, fresh coffee, free Wi-Fi and a kids’ center with iPads.

“I wanted to be a pioneer for other small businesses who will come in to make investments into the neighborhood.” Norris said.

Her passion for making a difference led her to serve on the Grove Park Foundation Board that seeks to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty for its residents through intentional education, housing and community wellness.

“Being on the board helped me connect a lot of dots. It’s all about how can I form partnerships with other organizations who see the needs and are willing to invest in community programs that will be beneficial to the neighborhood constituents,” Norris shared.

With the help of the Emory Urban Health Initiative and Cruz’s Fishermen Inc, TLC is turning extra parking spaces into a community garden and has volunteers lined up to maintain it. A partnership with a Georgia Tech professor and her students already resulted in a hands-on CPR class. And onsite financial literacy classes on topics like credit repair and insurance are up next.

Student volunteers from Georgia Tech paint the outdoor play area.

“I truly believe the laundry business today is about more than just clean clothes. You have a captive audience there for an hour. There are a lot of programs to inform and inspire,” Norris said.

Helping children with their homework is another way to pass the time while waiting for clothes to dry. “My husband has led the math tutoring program in our church for the last 10 years. We’ve been in discussions with a Georgia State University professor who’s interested in helping us start a summer math program, ” Norris explained.

Expansion and growth in the commercial and retail segment are drivers to TLC’s long-term vision. “Increasing our ability to provide job opportunities to people in the community we believe will lead to an increase in recycled dollars inside the community and subsequently an improved and thriving community. That’s my goal!”

For more about TLC, visit thelaundrycenters.com.

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