PUP alumni

People for Urban Progress began in 2008 by seeing the soon-to-be-imploded Indianapolis RCA Dome — specifically, its 13 acres of Teflon-coated fiberglass roof — and imagining, well, something else. That fabric soon became bags, shade structures, and wallets.

It most recently pondered nearly 6,100 former seat covers from Amtrak’s speediest train and thought: spiffy travel bags.

That’s how the nonprofit known as PUP has remade what others call waste for more than a decade, developing products and projects to promote a more sustainable Indianapolis. Three Ball State grads lead the group, and other Cardinals make up more than a third of its board.

“What has struck me about this organization is that it always seems to be doing that next right thing,” said Andrea Cowley, ’01. A journalism graphics grad with more than a decade of experience in nonprofit management, she joined PUP as its executive director a year ago.

The mission resonates with Cowley, who likens the sense of purpose to being on The Daily News staff while on campus. “It definitely sticks with me, being a part of something that felt important. And I think that continues in my line of work now.”

PUP co-founders Michael Bricker and Maryanne O’Malley started the reuse train by persuading the RCA Dome demolition firm to surrender the roof material. They added a sewing machine, rented a small studio, and got busy.

PUP saved and repurposed the RCA Dome roof gave the nonprofit its start in 2008.

Saving and repurposing the RCA Dome roof got PUP off the ground in 2008. The nonprofit’s vision, projects, and staff have expanded since. (Photo courtesy of PUP)

Each PUP product is still handmade in Indianapolis, with several people working to clean, cut, stitch, and tag every item, selling what would have otherwise been dumped in a landfill.

Please be seated

With the mantra “used does not mean unusable,” PUP’s early products were made from the dome fabric and reclaimed automotive seat belts. Money from sales was invested in larger urban reuse projects; part of it let the group move to a new home on Indy’s Near-Westside two years ago. Staffers are still gleeful about finally having all their material in the same spot instead of spread among a handful of warehouses.

One of those larger reuse projects came in 2012, when PUP collaborated on salvaging nearly 9,000 seats from Indianapolis’ Bush Stadium. It’d been home to three baseball teams bearing the city’s moniker: the current minor league Indians, plus then-Negro League teams the ABCs and the Clowns, where Hank Aaron made his pro-ball debut.

“Indianapolis didn’t have seating at bus stops. OK. Why don’t we make seats for bus stops? It seems like the natural progression,” Cowley said of the PUPstops.

“And I think what PUP does really well is, when there’s a lot of one type of item, we can come up with an inventive way to use it and then scale that.”

PUP also recycles organizations’ items into pieces the groups sell or give as gifts. IndyHumane turned in banners from previous Mutt Struts and got back bags to sell during that key fundraiser at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this Spring.

But until the Amtrak deal, the group’s work was always local. That shift has been exciting and challenging.

One supporter makes a difference

A PUP fan working with Amtrak “mentioned our work in reuse and how we were able to repurpose larger industrial materials,” Cowley said. That intrigued Amtrak as it pondered a 10-year update of its heavily used East Coast Acela Express — and how to make progress toward its 20 percent recycling goal by 2020. That all led to PUP getting a few seat covers to make prototypes from.

Enter Jessica Bricker, ’04. As PUP’s director of design & fabrication, she oversees all product development — from material sourcing to prototyping.

She can envision new items, thanks to her innate abilities and Ball State’s interior design training. Joining the nonprofit in 2009, Jessica is the twin sister of co-founder Michael, now director of public design.

She depends on lead product designer Amy Beemer, who cuts and stitches those visions into product prototypes.

Getting last pieces of foam out of an Amtrak seat cover before it proceeds to being cleaned and becoming something else.

Resource manager Jason Chisham removes the final foam from an Amtrak seat cover before it gets cleaned and dried at PUP. The material’s then cut and stitched into an item for the Amtrak line. (Photo by Don Rogers)

“Often, I explain what type of bag I’m looking for,” Bricker said, “and then she’ll have a go at it and make one, and then we’ll tweak it.” It can take from a few tries to more than 20 to get it. Bricker’s not big on sketching or making models. “I want to just start cutting and put it together and see what happens.”

Chugging ahead

Amtrak loved the prototypes and gave the green light. The first three pieces and their descriptions show how PUP ties products’ names to their underlying purposes, sometimes with a dash of whimsy:

  • “Dispatcher” Dopp kit holds travel toiletries, makeup, and three beer cans.
  • “Passenger” tote takes a laptop, workout attire, and movie snacks for the whole crew.
  • “Agent” backpack handles a laptop, gym gear, or a weekend’s worth of necessities.

But before PUP could start making bags in October and sewing Amtrak’s logo onto each piece, it had to separate seat covers from foam cushions that cosseted speeding riders between Boston and Washington, D.C.

It also took time to figure out how to clean 10 years’ worth of wear from the slate-blue, bonded leather, which has a bit of a plastic feel. PUP found an environmentally friendly dry-cleaning method.

Then two full-time staffers, along with a part-time TeenWorks student and a few volunteers, began trimming out the seams and cutting the pieces as big as possible, Bricker said, noting that the project is the group’s most complex to date. “Everything takes more time.”

Four part-time stitchers make the Amtrak line, which is being released in small batches every few months. The fourth batch added a “Conductor” weekender, which is a higher-quality leather that’s a slightly darker blue and carries an original Amtrak logo.

Getting folks on board

Getting the word out also was different for Emma Hagenauer, ’15, PUP’s brand manager who handles social media and marketing. Dealing with a national launch “was an exciting challenge and new focus for me over the past year. How can we market this product and our story to everyone that’s coming to our social media and our website?”

To assist, PUP hired an Indy public relations firm and also worked with Amtrak to help publicize the line, landing stories in the Washington Post, New York Post, Progressive Railroading, and other print and online publications.

Hagenauer said she was interested in fashion design from an early age, leading her to major in fashion merchandising. “When I went to Ball State, I decided that I really loved more of the business and marketing side,” choosing entrepreneurship as her minor. A social entrepreneurship course was one of her favorites. One discussion focused on Benefit Corporations, or B Corps, a business trend that balances purpose and profit.

“It was interesting to see the idea that a company can do well and do good. I’m really motivated by doing something positive for my community.”

Hagenauer interned for PUP her senior year and, after graduation, spent a year volunteering in Jamaica. When she returned to Indy, she applied for a job at PUP. “I was still interested in finding a job that could align with my creative passions and social justice and community issues I was interested in.”

Those are both key parts of PUP’s ethos. In addition to physical projects, PUP sponsors a series of monthly discussions called Daylight. This year was its second season, with inclusive design sessions on topics of inclusion, equity, dignity, and justice from March to June.

What’s on the horizon?

The Amtrak project has helped PUP look to its future presence west of Downtown, Cowley said. “We have the opportunity to make jobs available to our neighbors. For us, that’s part of the next chapter. Do we do job training? Do we teach people how to sew? Can we grow from having four sewing machines to 12? And create a demand for our products that not only helps with sustainability in our community but also pays people well for a skilled job?”

The “Agent” backpack uses Amtrak seat leather and reclaimed seat belts to help carry your stuff.

The “Agent” backpack uses Amtrak seat leather plus reclaimed seat belts that weren’t up to use in vehicles but are ideal for helping carry your stuff. (Photo courtesy of PUP)

For now, they’re riding ahead on the Amtrak line.

After selling more than 450 bags in its first four batches, PUP just introduced three smaller products: a slim wallet/card holder, sunglasses case, and handbag, Cowley said the group’s moving along on an oft-requested crossbody bag.

“It’s bringing us to a new fandom,” Cowley said. “You have the people who are nostalgic and romanticize the idea of train travel. And people use it for transportation every day. Being able to get other people interested in this reuse work has been incredibly exciting.

“What had been a hyper-local, just an Indianapolis kind of product,” she said, “has now become a national product. We’re exporting Indianapolis all over the country.”

Editor’s Note: Since this article was written for Ball State Alumni Magazine, Andrea Cowley, ’01, has left PUP to pursue other opportunities.