Sparking a Renaissance of Entrepreneurship and Economic Justice

A penetrating gaze envelops Dr. Ruben L. Anthony Jr. as he looks over the concrete-paved parking lot outside the headquarters of the Urban League of Greater Madison. The president and CEO of the historic civil rights organization carries a well-earned reputation for using his visionary mind and talents toward making the community a better place.

Now, he’s at it again. 

Some may conceive the South Park Street corridor as an oasis of fast-food joints and convenience stores skirting an aging strip mall. Not Anthony. He sees so much more. He sees a golden opportunity for racial economic justice on a generational scale with the development of a Black Business Hub.

“I see underutilized space and an opportunity to create an economic renaissance at the gateway of the southern entrance into the city,” said Anthony of the property about 100 yards south of the Urban League’s front doors on the corner of Park Street and Hughes Place.

The Urban League is locking arms with the City of Madison, the Community Development Authority and the Madison Black Chamber of Commerce to build a multi-story, Class A office building, loosely modeled after the successful Sherman Phoenix in Milwaukee ꟷ a thriving spot for Black entrepreneurs. 

“By creating a center of economic development, it will cause a multiplier effect around this community,” Anthony said. “Not only will we be building a Hub that will help small and minority-owned businesses, but we will also be reinvigorating businesses already in the area.” 

Plans for the 50,000 to 60,000-square-foot Hub launched with a $100,000 planning grant from Dane County. The county strengthened its commitment with an additional $2 million in funding to assist with capital costs. In February, the American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact announced a $400,000 investment to the project which will be used to seed a loan fund to support entrepreneurs looking to locate in the facility. 

In addition to funding, businesses will have access to a full complement of intensive technical assistance, including individualized coaching to develop strategic business plans, connections to other business support resources, mentorship and access to a network of culturally competent business experts.

For Anthony, trips back home to Yonkers, New York, unfold predominantly Black neighborhoods stripped of its authentic African American culture in favor of a new, more cosmopolitan version of the city. It leaves him with an unsettling pang in his gut.

“I spent a lot of time in Harlem as a young kid and Harlem is where I’ve seen the gentrification really take off,” Anthony recalls. “Black people have been locked out because property values were too high, and all of the Mom-and-Pop businesses were gone. Our Black enclaves, our places of comfort, have all been changed.”

It explains the fervor for protecting and preserving the economic legacy of south Madison. When Anthony sees inequities among marginalized communities, he refuses to turn a blind eye and instead seeks actionable solutions. A south side boom, driven by minority businesses, will help close the racial “wealth gap” that historically contributes to all the other vast disparities in Madison.

“It seemed to me that South Madison is being robbed of the opportunity to participate in the economic development in this area,” Anthony said. “As we look through this corridor, I see a majority of developers moving at a faster rate than the city can plan. Most of the housing and developable property is being bought up.”

As the south Madison landscape changes, Black leaders like Anthony are stepping up to define what the change should be.  Anthony credits Madison College President Dr. Jack E. Daniels’ strategic, bold move to build the brand-new Goodman South Campus as the birth of the south Madison renaissance. 

The Black Business Hub is arguably Anthony’s crowning accomplishment as the CEO and president of the Urban League, a post he’s held since March 2015. It is being designed not only as a physical space to allow minority business owners an opportunity for a storefront location, but also to serve as a community hub and nationwide model for others to duplicate.

By supporting more Black-owned companies, one can help create more opportunities for meaningful savings, property ownership, credit building, and generational wealth for Black communities. In essence, healthy Black-owned businesses are critical components for closing the wealth gap. 

“Believing that we can do something right here in south Madison is a big deal,” he said. “If we don’t bet on Black businesses, who will?” 

Anthony, known for burning the candle at both ends, is also a grandfather with his sight set on investing in the future.

“We need to be building a future for the next generation so that there’s something left to call theirs, and that there’s something left they can be proud of,” Anthony said. “Then they can take it and shepherd it and move it to the next level.”