Edison Neighborhood

Ongoing efforts result in full occupancy in Kalamazoo's Washington Square area

“Hard work always pays off.” “Keep your nose to the grindstone.” “When one door closes, another door opens.”
 
All are inspiring quotes. All apply to those involved in trying to reinvigorate the business district of Kalamazoo’s Edison Neighborhood.
 
Three new businesses have opened in recent weeks in the area along Portage Street, southeast of downtown Kalamazoo, and another is soon to open. At the same time, an organization that has been working to empower the African-American community by forming collaborations that support the growth of Black-owned businesses has become a property owner in the area.
 
Black Wall Street Kalamazoo has purchased 1311 Portage St. and is expected to spend a year studying the best use of the commercial property.
 
“We want to use the property in a way that will be most beneficial to minority business owners with a specific focus on the Black entrepreneur who is struggling most within the Kalamazoo community,” Nicole Triplett, founder of Black Wall Street Kalamazoo, says in a prepared statement. “We want to strategically partner with other organizations and private foundations to provide this support.”
 
The property, which was formerly used by the Jersey Giant sandwich shop, is already home to Kzoo Nutrition, Community Promise Credit Union, and Twine the Urban Winery, a business owned by Triplett.
 
“It’s amazing what’s going on in Washington Square right now,” says Tammy Taylor, Executive Director of the Edison Neighborhood Association. “It was a long time coming from having it be the adult business district to making it a truly vibrant, family-friendly retail shopping area.”
 
Washington Square, the area along Portage Street, just south and east of downtown Kalamazoo, has evolved over the last 16 years from a thru-way for go-home traffic in the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s, into a fertile growing space for start-up businesses and other enterprises. That progress slowed last year as people hunkered down during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it is coming back with enthusiasm.
 
The Kalamazoo County Land Bank Authority says several formerly vacant Washington Square properties it has owned are now fully occupied or soon-to-be occupied. 
 
“It’s really super-exciting – the new businesses in the neighborhood,” Taylor says. “And all of the new redevelopment going on around us, it’s just wow! Everything is finally going somewhere.”
 
Great for the neighborhood, she said, are: The Creamery, the $14.7 million, 48-unit housing and commercial development that opened in March at Portage and Lake streets; the repaving of Portage Street through the area by the City of Kalamazoo; and the $4.2 million renovation of the Bank Street Farmers’ Market. The renovation will provide new space for vendors, restrooms, an office building, a performance stage, a children’s play area, additional parking, and a connection to the River Valley Trail. In Washington Square, she said, the alley between W&P Diner and Layla’s Cool Pops is also being renovated.
 
The Land Bank, which works to acquire, repurpose and sell vacant and abandoned land parcels, has owned several buildings and been engaged in redevelopment in the Edison Neighborhood since 2013. It has worked closely with the Edison Neighborhood Association and El Concilio on nearly 20 block-wide events such as Art Hops, Harvest Festivals, and the Inside Out project (which featured large black and white photographs of residents on the exterior facades of two buildings) to create a space for area residents to enjoy and events to help shape the future of Washington Square.

The goal during this time was to bring out the Edison neighborhood to make sure their voices guided the redevelopment process and to provide a space for celebration and connection even when the spaces did not have tenants and needed a significant amount of work.
 
Formerly the Hispanic American Council, El Concilio is a nonprofit organization that strives to help members of the Latinx community support their families, contribute to society and appreciate their cultural significance in the region.
 
“When the Land Bank acquired the Washington Square property, they reached out to us to be involved in efforts to recruit tenants,” Adrian Vazquez, director of El Concilio says in a prepared statement. “They also started the important work of raising funds to renovate the spaces and investing to make sure they could be used for different community businesses. In the last five years, there has been more activity. The area is welcoming to walk and is a source of pride for the neighborhood.”
 
Triplett says, “The Land Bank recognizes the need to make financially sound decisions that are focused on the community, and how best to set the community up for success.”
 
The new businesses include:
 
Twine the Urban Winery by the Roche Collection –  Triplett, the first Black woman to become a licensed winemaker in Michigan, opened Twine the Urban Winery, a tasting room for her Roche Collection wines, in January. It is at 1319 Portage St., inside the building Triplett acquired. According to information provided by the Land Bank, Triplett expects to expand the sales of her wines when they go on sale in October at 250 Meijer stores. They are thus far sold at various locations in Greater Kalamazoo, including City Centre Market & Deli, Market Fresh supermarket, Park Street Market, J&B Discount Liquor, and the Harding’s market on Gull Road.
 
Ty’s Joint – The southern cooking restaurant, serves southern fried chicken, southern fried catfish, colossal shrimp, yams, onion rings, collard greens, and other dishes at 1301 Portage St. The former location of Pho on the Block was purchased by Tyrone Griffis and had a grand opening in late April. “Ty is awesome,” Taylor said. “His staff is sweet and the food is absolutely amazing.”
 
Layla’s Cool Pops  – Teen entrepreneur Layla Wallace, whose sweet baked good business was inspired by a fourth-grade economics project, has opened Layla’s Cool Pops at 1336 Portage St. A seller of cupcakes, cookie pops, brownies and other treats, the business is a nonprofit that supports her Sweets4Homelessness Initiative, designed to work with local community organizations committed to providing financial support for the purchase of homes. Products can be purchased online.
 
W&P Cafe – After delays attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, KPEP’s long-awaited diner is poised to open in September at 1324 Portage St. That is the former location of the Kalamazoo Color Lab. The diner, whose name incorporates Washington and Portage (and is a nod to the first KPEP dining enterprise Walnut and Park), will serve traditional fare.
 
“Family-friendly” and “diversity” were qualities top on residents’ wish list for the resurgence of Washington Square, which over the years has been through many incarnations and has been the subject of many community visioning sessions and workshops.  
 
“We are delighted to see Black Wall Street, Nicole Triplett, and Tyrone Griffis as new entrepreneurs in Washington Square partnering with us to pick up the baton and step into property ownership of two key buildings,” says Kelly Clarke, Executive Director of the Land Bank. “Since we began our work in Washington Square, our desire has always been to forward resident goals and allow resident vision to be created. Our goal was to approach the effort so that the transformation would be equitable and serve the neighborhood’s desires. The two new property owners (Triplett and Griffis) and business ventures are such a great fit for a neighborhood that is so proud to be the most diverse neighborhood in the city.”

 

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.
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