'Unapologetically Black': New Farmington Hills space to uplift minority businesses in the suburbs

Gerrard and Racheal Allen see a lack of curated environments for Black professionals in the suburbs surrounding Detroit. Whether co-working or shared office spaces, the Farmington Hills couple says entrepreneurs and innovators have long had to settle for fitting into settings void of any Black aesthetics or commonalities.

So they are making their own. Centric Place, a 10,000-square-foot commercial building, will house offices, co-opt working spaces, and host corporate celebrations, art-centered events, and business classes. Located on Freedom Road in Farmington Hills, the hub is set to open Nov. 18.

The Allens, who are educational professionals, see the value in supporting entrepreneurship and recognize the pitfalls. “Both of our parents were entrepreneurs,” Racheal Allen says. "We originally thought we were never going to be entrepreneurs just after seeing them have their challenges 25 years ago."

The couple’s ventures have previously included a catering business and event planning service, vending machines, and photobooths.

“In 2017 we were starting our first business together and we thought it would be a great idea to take a class,” Racheal Allen says. "I’m sitting in that class and I realize that there are so many places that teach you how to start a business, but so few places that show you how to operate a business."

The Allen’s decided to open up Operation’s School, a nonprofit offering education for owners of small businesses. "I really have a heart for wanting small Black businesses to stay open,” says Racheal Allen.

“We teach how to understand financials, leveraging their business through systems, giving them the tools on how to run a business. The numbers are staggering," she says, referring to the eight out of 10 Black-owned businesses that close within the first 18 months of opening.

The school will be housed in Centric Place, along with Racheal Allen’s Opsidia Agency, a collection of Black women operations practitioners. “We have about 40 consultants on our team who are everything from bookkeepers, CPAs, small business attorneys, and project management professionals, and we pair our team with small businesses in the community,” she says.

The Allens were very intentional when choosing a location for Centric Place. Since the year 2000, Oakland County’s Black population has increased from 10.1% to 13.6%, and the increase has led to more Black business professionals and entrepreneurs who reside in the area. Many of those professionals operate places of business in the city of Detroit and find it challenging to commute back and forth. 

The Allens see Centric Place as a perfect business hub, and even an opportunity for some of those businesses to relocate. They are designing up to eight offices available for tenants, a conference room, access to private meeting spaces, and a 3,500-square-foot event space that can be utilized for corporate retreats.

“There are a lot of people that do the same thing but the double back downtown is not always as accessible as it may seem,” says Gerrard Allen. "There are a lot of professionals that live in this area that don’t have access to a space like this."

He points to the pandemic's push towards remote working and co-opted working spaces that didn’t always feel welcoming.

“We’ve all gone to co-working spaces that felt sterile, where we weren’t seen, and the things we value weren’t respected, even down to the kind of music you can play in certain areas,” says Racheal Allen. "When we sat down with folks from the community to let them know we were going to open our business here, one of the first things we said is we wanted to make this space unapologetically Black. We want Black folks and our allies to feel seen, welcome, and that something was created for them."

To assist with this, the Allens brought in famed designer Bucky Willis to help facilitate some of the design elements at Centric Place.  Everything from the style of furniture, art on the walls, and seating arrangements were carefully curated. Centric Place will also have a collection of Ebony magazines Racheal Allen inherited from her grandmother on display.

The Allen's commitment to the arts goes beyond aesthetics. Gerrard Allen is a nationally-known poet who was a founding member of Eastern Michigan University’s The Poetry Society and is the creator of the ‘The Color of Drums’ performance. In 2021 he authored the book “I’m Gorgeous: The Anthology Project”. Centric Place will benefit from the couple's patronage, hosting events for visual, literary, and performance artists, and artist cultivation workshops will also be offered. 

“The artist's cultivation looks like allowing them to introduce their art, housing and keeping their art on the walls for 35 to 45 days. So the art still lives in the space and builds that into a series.  Because of the clientele that's coming in; it just puts their art in front of someone that can learn about the art. It’s about what's on the wall, why it's on the wall, and what it represents,” says Gerrard Allen.

“It's about making sure we’re helping them sell, it’s about picking the right artists that will match the clientele we’re looking for. We want artists to say my pieces went up and I sold all of them.  We want to be that kind of space. We want our artists to be able to make a living by hosting their art,” says Racheal Allen.

Centric Place will offer memberships contingent on the needs of the associate.  “There will be varying levels of memberships to make sure it's an affordable price range for folks,” says Racheal Allen. "The flexible memberships will allow people to shape their experience how they see fit."

Although the Allens are confident that Centric Place will be a success, they still have the same nervousness as other entrepreneurs in the early stages of a new business venture. 

“This is a big leap of faith for us and what we hope is for other people to live their wildest dreams in this space as well,” Racheal Allen says.

Photos by Kahn Santori Davison.
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