Opportunity lies where commerce and commuters intersect

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Investing in South Side creatives requires creative considerations in a post-COVID reality

By Cheryl V. Jackson & Meghan Haynes

The L1 Creative Business Accelerator is a new fellowship designed to provide business training and mentorship for creative entrepreneurs and spur more retail activity in the Washington Park neighborhood. Part of The University of Chicago Arts and Public Life initiative, the program will give three startup businesses rent-subsidized space to sell their wares for two years. 

And it’s not just any space: It’s one with historical significance.

The startups will operate from the original Garfield El station house, built-in 1892 and renovated as part of a $43 million project at the stop — the space (in the 300 block of East Garfield Boulevard) sits right across the street from the shiny new station, and the businesses will benefit from transit-oriented customer traffic that has the potential to bring throngs of commuters to their doorstep.

The L1 platform appears to have resonance among South Side creatives: Close to 60 businesses had applied to be part of the first cohort, the three fellows are slated to be announced in Q2 2020.

Brick-and-mortar presence has been revered as a sort of milestone for business owners. But in a world that now requires social distancing, limiting the numbers of patrons who can shop at one time, and safeguards, protocols and considerations for interactions among sellers, buyers and the merchandise itself, establishing and navigating physical commerce spaces now presents a number of challenges, especially in the small space earmarked for L1 fellows. 

Undeterred, L1 is pressing on, and Erin Venable, Arts and Public Life assistant director of communications, captures the spirit driving the move forward: “Entrepreneurs don’t wait for answers: Entrepreneurs are creative, they adapt.  There is opportunity in the struggle.”

 A primary area of opportunity will be increasing the social and digital presence of the L1 fellows, and ensuring that they have robust online commerce functionality. The initiative is moving forward with the buildout and conversion of the interior space, but the “ribbon-cutting” will be an online event (currently scheduled for the end of June). And once the space opens, slated for July, all strategies will be considered to ensure full compliance with required mandates; for example, staggering the days or times of the L1 merchants versus having all three operating at the same time. 

Venable says the path forward requires being both reactive and proactive. “We’re in the same boat as a lot of people — we take in all the knowledge share, we’re listening and responding so we can give the most accurate resources and information available. There’s a lot of brainstorming and just having dialogue, a  mixture of thinking through things, trying to get ahead, and exploring options.”

“Our strategy was always rooted in understanding what the barriers are for entrepreneurs, understanding why they’re there and why they came to be so we can address and shift and change. So we’re just pivoting, broadening that conversation, shifting mindsets and getting people to get comfortable.”

L1 fellows will receive training in business strategy and management, marketing and branding, corporate responsibility, and business law. Proximity, the urban planning and social impact arm of The Silver Room Foundation Inc. will conceive and provide programming. The Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation also plans to support fellow programming.

“[The syllabus] will give them a deep-dive into entrepreneurship,” says Eric Williams, owner of Hyde Park-based boutique The Silver Room and founder of its aforementioned namesake foundation.

A 2018 Loeb Fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Williams knows firsthand the impact a creative business can have in a community. For more than two decades, his boutique has been an outlet for custom jewelry, t-shirts, art classes and community events, and in 2002, he extended this reach with his brainchild Silver Room Sound System Block Party, an annual event that attracted about 46,000 people last year — a commissioned report pegged the event’s economic impact at $2.3 million.

Williams has long had an interest in helping artists and creators set up shop. “When I started, I didn’t have any mentors, nobody to kind of guide me. So my first thought was how could I be more personally available to people who have questions about how do you run a small business,” he says, talking about what spurred him to create a business development program. “I’m drawing from my background as a street peddler to my degree in finance to my 22-year retail space.”                     

And while preparing fellows to have their own brick and mortar locations on the South Side is certainly still a goal, and assessing how the applicants product and service offerings squared with neighborhood demand is one of the aspects that was considered in the application process,  there is an imperative to rethink and redefine success and impact. “Brick  and mortar was the standard, the ultimate goal, but we have to be open..we can’t just push what made sense before,” Venable says. “Ultimately we just want the fellows to impact the community and have a successful long-term strategy for their business.”

“On the consumer side, we’re starting with the nucleus of Washington Park and beyond. We want the consumers to spread the word and be a catalyst, so we have to consider what the fellows will be selling: Does it make sense in that space? Does it serve the area? Is it what people want?” Venable says.  Proximity to transit gives an unparalleled chance to court CTA riders and extend neighborhood revitalization, and that can only be enhanced by the webinars and virtual tours that must also be among the outreach and promotional strategies.

So while the short term requires immediate adjustments — adapting and formatting curricula for online learning via webinar, establishing portals so seminars and communication can take place virtually, culling resources, etc. — the mission and vision is unchanged. And in some ways that mission has expanded, as APL seeks to inspire and emulate how entrepreneurs can emerge.

“Creativity buoys us in uncertain times; it’s something we cherish and uplift. It’s important to see people in the community who are aspirational,” Venable says, noting that social media has already given way to trends whereby creatives are innovating , flexing their ingenuity, and establishing opportunities for deeper connection among patrons.

“Our priorities have changed, but we’re still supporting creative entrepreneurs, and committed to inspiring creative entrepreneurship so people can see what it looks like. We will navigate our fellows through this journey, and we’re still establishing this new, cool destination space, but we’re also thinking about what it means to redefine entrepreneurial presence…what can ‘bigger’ look like now?”

Entrepreneurs play an important role in the Green Line South area economy and have likely been impacted by the economic effects of COVID-19.

In 2019, there were an estimated 145 small and medium businesses (SMBs[1]) per 10,000 residents in the area around Green Line South[2] (Figure 1). A recent report out of Main Street America found that almost 7.5 million of the country’s nearly 30 million small businesses are at risk of closing permanently due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. With a number of  SMBs in the Green Line South area, it is likely that many of the neighborhood’s small business owners are feeling the detrimental impacts of the virus-related economic downturn. Now more than ever, entrepreneurs in this area could benefit from programs aimed at equipping and boosting current and new, small- and medium-sized businesses.

Figure 1- Small- and Medium-Sized Businesses Per Capita

Above Table Source: US Census Bureau County Business Patterns, Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI Metro Area (2015), cited from Assessing Chicago’s Small Business Ecosystem, 2019, Next Street [3]

In 2019, job growth in Green Line South lagged the City and the region, but exceeded many nearby communities.

Figure 2 shows that the Green Line South area experienced more job growth from 2010-2019 than surrounding communities, but less than the City and Metro[4] region. Existing entrepreneurship and positive job growth in the Green Line South area indicates an opportunity for ongoing SMB and job creation to further boost employment to City and Metro levels.

Figure 2- Percent Change in Private Sector Employment, 2010 to 2019

[1] SMB: small- and medium-sized businesses, defined as for-profit establishments with up to 250 full-time employees.

[2] Zipcode 60615

[3] Metropolitan Statistical Area as defined by US Census. No data available for City of Chicago.

[4] Metropolitan Area defined as six counties: Cook, Will, DuPage, Lake, Kane, McHenry

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