Economic Prosperity for Black Business is Right Step Towards Economic Justice

Untapped potential for economic development on Madison’s south side is a step closer to being on full display.

The South Park Street corridor will give birth to a Black Business Hub that will allow entrepreneurs, business startups, self-employed people and small business owners to have an affordable option to creating, developing and maintaining a sustainable business. It’s something Dr. Ruben Anthony Jr., president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, envisions as a necessary, wealth-building opportunity to uplift the cities’ oldest African American enclave.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi included $2 million in the 2021 budget to aid in the vision becoming a reality. The monetary support will assist the Urban League in purchasing and developing the site for the economic development hub.

“It will be a real economic shot in the arm and a significant economic anchor for Black businesses in Dane County,” Anthony said in a Sept. 22 press conference. “This is how economic justice is done. By investing in strong and minority-owned businesses we can get it done.”

The project will be modeled after the Sherman Phoenix project in Milwaukee, an entrepreneurial incubator in the Sherman Park neighborhood providing high-quality commercial space and support for small businesses.  Funded by a mix of public and private dollars, Sherman Phoenix has become a community hub promoting businesses created by people of color.

The Milwaukee hub, housed in a remodeled BMO Harris bank building, is a mix of retail, health and wellness, beauty, and art-based small businesses. It also has a food hall showcasing numerous different vendors who share kitchen space. Entrepreneurs who are part of Sherman Phoenix receive mentorship and coaching as they grow their business. The model is one that Dane County and the Urban League hope to duplicate for the south side of Madison.

For Parisi, it’s imperative to include economic equity conversations in discussions about ways to build racial equity within the community.

“As we chart a path through the post pandemic economic recovery, small businesses and entrepreneurship is critical to our effort,” Parisi said. “We know that communities of color have been hit hardest by the pandemic, both in terms of illnesses and economic hardship. We’re committed to working with our community partners, like the Urban League, to counter those impasses and to charter a path to recovery that includes everyone in our community.”

This isn’t the first time Dane County backed the Urban League. In July, the county announced it would contract with the Urban League for $100,000 to create a one-year project position to coordinate this effort. The Urban League has hired that individual to pull together planning processes related to the facility, conduct a site search, and develop the facility’s operational structure, financial modeling, and business plan. This work will also include outreach to and selection of prospective tenants for the new business hub.

Much like Sherman Phoenix, goals of the future economic development hub will be to support entrepreneurship, whether it be through mentorship or coaching, and support entrepreneurs of color to help them grow their businesses, generate jobs, and support the local economy. Through this effort, Dane County and the Urban League want to build community wealth by engaging neighborhood partners, supporting small businesses, and demonstrating that socially just and culturally rich projects can be successful in disinvested communities.

Anthony added that by partnering with Dane County: “This sends a strong signal to investors that government leadership in this community gets it. They get it and they support this project and they’re committed to making things happen.”

The Urban League hopes to have the real estate selected for the hub by the end of the year, with the assistance from a project management team, along with a team of advisors to “really throw rocks at the concept and help us develop the best hub that we can develop,” he said.

The entrepreneurial incubator project will also be a hands-on learning opportunity for some graduate students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Urban League will team with Alfonso Morales, professor of Urban and Regional Planning at UW-Madison, and some of his students, who are interested in gaining community and engagement development experience, Anthony said.

“The Urban League of Greater Madison has engaged Hope Community Capital as its consultant team to facilitate the selection and the financial feasibility for this particular effort,” Anthony added. “We’ll look at numerous sites in South Madison and we’re going to do it with the community right there with us.”