Dr. Ruben L. Anthony Jr. has a gift for seeing potential in others, even before they see it in themselves. Equally, he can zero in on opportunities, where others only envision obstacles. The president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison is a visionary to be sure, but more importantly, he sees his vision through to reality.
This might explain why hundreds would gather on an exceptionally frigid Friday afternoon in April to witness the groundbreaking of the $25.5 million Black Business Hub, and bear witness to a promise kept in constructing a vibrant commercial destination space in south Madison, where Black-owned businesses can thrive and establish generational wealth. It is being called the crowning jewel of the Urban League under Anthony’s leadership and his dynamic team.
“I have often asked the question, if the Urban League won’t bet on Black businesses, then who will,” said Anthony, drawing applause and nodding heads. “I believe that we have to lead by example. If we don’t have any skin in the game, we can’t ask others. We took some risks, because we know that it is time to make significant investments in south Madison, and on Black and brown businesses.”
The outpouring of support was palatable. The crowd swelled to over 400 in the outside, shovels-in-the-ground ceremony, despite temperatures dipping below normal amid a cascade of puffy snowflakes. Seemingly hanging on every word, Urban League financial supporters, government dignitaries, and lifelong southside residents inhaled Anthony’s foresight for better tomorrows.
The Hub and its Accelerator Program is being lauded as the region’s premiere enterprise center devoted to incubating, accelerating, and networking Black and other entrepreneurs of color.
“This building is going to bridge the gap that financial institutions have never addressed for people of color to thrive, to create, to succeed,” said Madison Common Council Alder Sheri Carter.
Anthony, the former deputy secretary of the state Department of Transportation who was recognized for his work to increase opportunities for minority-owned businesses, said he’s devoted to helping find solutions to the racial disparities plaguing the Madison area. What stands out is the lack of Black-owned businesses in the area. In Dane County there are more than 10,000 businesses with more than one employee. Of those, just 40 were Black owned.
“This is five-times worse than the national average, which is 2.2%,” said Anthony, calling the statistics a crisis. “I know Dane County can do better, and this investment will help change that.”
The Hub will be a self-sustaining 80,000 square foot, four-story building, located at the Village on Park, at the corner of South Park Street and Hughes Place. Once completed, it will include BIPOC-owned businesses, co-working spaces, offices, storefronts, space for pop-up vendors, a shared commercial kitchen, and more. Over the next few years, it’s estimated that the Hub will support a minimum of 100 Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs, create or relocate over 150 jobs, create at least 250 temporary construction jobs, train Black real estate developers, among other things.
“It’s a great day for Wisconsin and a great day for Madison,” said Gov. Tony Evers. “This is a community project that is going to succeed because it was built by the entire community. When we invest in small businesses, our communities see the direct impact almost immediately.”
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin announced via video during the ceremony that she has secured $1 million in a federal appropriation for the project, bringing its funding total to $18.5 million in only a year-and -a-half of fundraising.
“The Hub is a long-overdue investment,” Baldwin said. “The Hub will serve as an incubator for entrepreneurs and innovators, empowering and inspiring tomorrow’s leaders.”
Summit Credit Union CEO, Kim Sponem also announced her group will open a new branch in the Hub.
“We are excited to place a Summit branch in the Hub as part of our commitment to economic development by leveraging our many financial wellness programs and products to assist businesses, entrepreneurs and families with their financial needs and with making good financial decisions,” Sponem said.
Many Black business owners express frustration about the challenges they face in accessing capital. The Hub, dubbed the “missing link” for transforming the greater Madison’s Black entrepreneurial community from disparity to prosperity.
“The project is an unprecedented opportunity to spur a more equitable distribution of income, wealth, jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities for residents in the South Park Street corridor,” Anthony said. “We want to stop gentrification and lead an economic renaissance in this area that will empower 15 or more minority owned businesses. This project is inspired, in part, by the successful Sherman Phoenix located in Milwaukee, and its community-driven, equitable economic empowerment.”
The Black Business Hub is slated to open in 2023.