Discovering Opportunity in West Oakland, the Alex Miller-Cole Story.

Newly planted trees line the street near house Miller-Cole recently rehabbed.

Alex Miller-Cole is a typical Oaklander and an exceptional person. He is typical because he arrived here from somewhere else and has remade his life many times. What’s exceptional is what he is doing with the life he has built for himself in West Oakland.

Alex came to California from Mexico as a teenager and then, while wading through the legalization process, came very close to being deported. He ran a successful interior design business for a decade until the Crash of 2008. As he put it, “everything went to hell. Interior design is like travel-it’s not a necessity.”

He bought his home in West Oakland at the height of the housing bubble in May of 2000. As he watched his house lose value after the Crash, he also saw neighboring buildings plummet in value while landlords abandoned their care.

So he decided to purchase one of them and rehab it with the crew that had been with him in his design work. In fact, during our conversation he repeatedly mentioned that keeping his crew together was one of the reasons that he decided to start a new business. So he went from running Alex Cole studios to starting the Cypress One Properties when he bought a fourplex on his street.

Miller-Cole bought and rehabbed this house into a bright and very functional duplex.

He has bought and rehabbed a total of 6 properties, and then rerented them to the same tenants or to other folks from the neighborhood. Thirty percent of his tenants are still in the Section 8 program. He says that it is possible to keep the rents low while upgrading the units and making a profit.

Miller-Cole didn’t stop with building a successful business rehabbing properties in his neighborhood. He is also the chair of the San Pablo Corridor Coalition which has mapped the assets and resources in West Oakland and found that there are a surprising number of manufacturing companies that go unnoticed.

What has not gone unnoticed to his group is that most of these businesses employ no West Oaklanders and the members of the Coalition are working to change that. For instance, REI, that well-known Berkeley outfitter, [it turns out, as you can read below, that I was mistaken. REI has no factory in West Oakland or in California at all. I am sorry for this error] makes sleeping bags in their unmarked factory on West Grand, along with a giant publishing house PsPrint on Mandela which bills itself as “one of the most environmentally friendly printing companies on the web”. Cole says that PsPrint is receptive to hiring local which would certainly be a more environmentally sound practice than transporting people from out of the area.

Many Oaklanders are members of REI, the largest consumer cooperative in the US (according to its website).  If members read the company’s policy statement which declares it is “an employer of choice, where employees are highly engaged in the vision of the company and are representative of our communities,” they might want to check up on REI’s hiring policies in West Oakland and let them know whether it is indeed representative of “our communities.”

Alex Miller-Cole and the San Pablo Corridor are working closely with Council Member Nancy Nadel. Through her office they found out about the many machining shops making parts for other industries in West Oakland. They also discovered that these shops are always on the lookout for employees with the right training and that few people are getting that training. He contends that this is a highly paid profession with few credentialing requirements, unlike contracting or plumbing, etc. He envisions a young person getting a job making a good income and raising a family all while being able to walk to work.

The next step for Mr. Miller-Cole and his group is to set up training programs for this type of work. In the meantime they are still planting trees and cleaning up neighborhoods. They have already adopted two parks in their area.

As a business owner and landlord one would expect that Cole would be opposed to a new parcel tax, including the $80 tax suggested by Mayor Quan that the City Council has so far been unwilling to put on the ballot. But one would be wrong. He said, “The point is we have 400 jobs to lose” and he believes we can’t afford that. He says, “I am the happy owner of six properties. We’re being asked to get our city over the hump for the price of a few dinners out.” As Alex Cole-Miller stated simply, “We must “save our city.”

Alex Miller-Cole in front of his studio

3 Comments on "Discovering Opportunity in West Oakland, the Alex Miller-Cole Story."

  1. this was a wonderfully written picture of a great West Oakland activist. Thanks so much for doing it, Floyd Huen

  2. Pamela,

    We were surprised to read in your blog that our company, REI, has an “unmarked factory” on West Grand. In fact, we don’t have any factories in the Bay Area, nor do we have any factories in California. Perhaps your source has confused REI with one of our vendors.

    It is important to us to contribute to the communities we serve – through jobs for local residents, grants to organizations that help people enjoy the outdoors, volunteer projects that restore trails and other places in nature, and in returning millions of dollars annually in dividends to our members – many of whom live in West Oakland, as you note.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

    Courtney Coe
    REI Public Affairs

  3. alexmillercole | July 20, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Reply

    Dear Courtney,
    This is Alex, The person who is featured in this article. Thanks for your comment and correction. I would like to first apologize publicly for having misspoke without having had all of the facts on hand. It turns our that the shop on Alicia Street in West Oakland might have worked for REI on a contract bases for you. We spoke with an employee. I am sorry. I will continue to look into this matter and will get to the bottom of it.

    What I find more shocking in your comment is that a California Company like REI would not manufacture anything in California. I am sure REI needs to stay competitive in a world market, but WOW. Not a single thing is manufactured in California? Really? That is sad. We must bring back jobs to our Cities. Every generation produces scholars, geniuses and plenty of blue collar workers. What about them? Are they to become criminals or individuals dependent on the system? We, the average Americans are running out of options and disposable cash. Without local jobs… who will buy REI products?


    Alex Miller-Cole

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