This article first appeared in the Aspen Daily News. By Curtis Wackerle.

With the local market for reusable grocery bags about to get bigger, Colorado Mountain College and Garfield County are partnering on an effort to open a light-industrial sewing shop that will serve as a workforce training center and produce the produce haulers.

GarCo Sewing Works recently received a $28,154 grant from Garfield County for six industrial sewing machines and other equipment, as well as $18,960 to cover a year’s worth of rent for a 2,000-square-foot space in the Henry Building in downtown Rifle.

CMC’s Go2Work program exists to help people — often those who have low incomes or are in periods of transition in their lives — gain job skills and integrate into the workforce. It often works hand-in-hand with state workforce resource centers and Garfield County Human Services. A few years ago, Jill Ziemann, the head of the Go2Work program, and Beth Shaw, CMC’s dean of business and industry, began talking about incorporating sewing skills into workforce training programs.

On May 1, Aspen grocery stores will no longer be able to give away plastic bags in the check-out line, and paper bags will come with a 20-cent fee. Officials have been preparing for the new law to take effect since last fall, and  Office for Resource Efficiency — which is supported by local governments — began talking with Ziemann and Shaw.

Lindsay Gurley, community energy programs assistant with CORE, has been in contact with outdoor gear manufacturers in hopes of securing extra fabrics. She has secured donated materials from Big Agnes and GoLite, both Colorado brands. The fabric — primarily used for sleeping pads — will be provided to GarCo Sewing Works to get it started on the bags. A deal also is in the works with the manufacturers of livestock feed bags, which can be converted into the grocery bags.

CORE plans an initial order of around 5,000 bags, Gurley said, although depending on how things play out in Basalt and Carbondale, more bags could be necessary. Those communities will vote on April 3 whether to uphold the bag laws passed by their respective town councils.

Much of the labor at GarCo Sewing Works will be volunteer, Shaw said. Besides sewing and working the industrial machines, the program will focus on developing entrepreneurial and general business management skills, Shaw said.

“Our goal is to train people and get them working full time so they can be self-sufficient,” Shaw said.

The organizers hope the start-up shop will eventually spawn a for-profit industrial sewing business that will employ 20 to 40 people. Such facilities in Denver and Grand Junction are “at capacity,” suggesting that market demand exists, Shaw said.

Depending on the type of materials used, the per-unit price on the bags from GarCo is estimated to be between $1.75 to $3.50, she said. The sewing outfit also plans to work with Mountain Valley Developmental Services, to do some finishing work on products the organization’s clients weave.

Ashley Cantrell, environmental health specialist with the city of Aspen, said the city plans to hand out many of the bags outside grocery stores in the beginning weeks of the ban. She is focusing her time now talking with businesses like local hotels and transportation providers, so they can be ready to explain the program to tourists.

The city still has about 1,000 reusable bags in the environmental health office that are free for the taking.