Washington Heights

Washington Heights Entrepreneurial Fund will help businesses get funds they need to start or grow

Applications will be accepted beginning May 1.
Lines drawn for federally-funded Opportunity Zones that boost development in downtown Battle Creek exclude the city’s Washington Heights neighborhood. 

Now, an economic development partnership with New Level Sports Ministries and Battle Creek Unlimited is about to make those lines disappear. They have established the Washington Heights Entrepreneurial Fund, established with a $2 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Applications will be accepted beginning May 1 for the program that prioritizes those who are Black, Hispanic, and Burmese – groups with traditionally limited access to capital, says Joe Sobieralski, President and CEO for BCU. Applicants may be eligible for grants up to $300,000 for real estate-only improvements. They may also be eligible to receive low-interest loans up to $150,000 for viable startups and existing businesses.

Will Fobbs, a community advocate, says, “We noticed that opportunity zones were etched all around Washington Heights and we realized that a lot of the money from the federal government wasn’t going to make it into Washington Heights. A lot of grants are dependent on being included in an opportunity zone. I started doing some research and then found out about the improvements downtown. You can go east on Michigan Avenue and see development and cranes and you can literally go across Washington Avenue and not see that.”

Map of the program boundariesWashington Avenue marks the entry point into Washington Heights, a predominantly African American neighborhood that has its fair share of vacant land and buildings that have the potential to house businesses, including grocery stores, restaurants with live entertainment, an urgent care facility, and a bank or credit union. These are among the enterprises that Pastor Chris McCoy is imagining for the neighborhood that his family has been an integral part of for decades. He is hopeful that other residents will come alongside him to join in the imagining of what’s possible.

Joe Sobieralski of Battle Creek Unlimited.“When you unravel a vision and see what’s going on it unlocks that vision in other people,” says McCoy, Executive Director of New Level Sports Ministries, headquartered in Washington Heights. “It goes beyond just a project. This goes deep in addressing challenges that People of Color in Battle Creek have had for a long time. We’ve never had this type of vision before, but because we can come to the table with our own properties and buildings, now it’s just a matter of stimulus.”

A hard shift in focus

“Economic development has been making a hard shift focused on bringing companies into the community and improving existing facilities,” Sobieralski says. “For the last 10 years, we’ve also been talking about the importance of existing and new talent in our community. With the events of the last year, there are desired efforts among a lot of our stakeholders to make positive change, and the first place to make that change is in working with the city’s inner-core neighborhoods to improve their livelihoods.”

Recipients of the fund also will be provided business services, including accounting, marketing, or legal guidance. A suite of related services and mentors will help ensure long-term program success in Washington Heights.

Fobbs says it’s one thing to bring in resources, but there also has to be an onboarding process that comes through mentorship and helps people to navigate the process to ensure the best possible success rate for those seeking to start a business. He says he would like to see the whole community “rally around these folks.”

“What we found is that if you’re doing economic development and if you don’t have money to get in the game, it’s all for naught,” Fobbs says. “There are a lot of things folks who take the initiative have to do. We have to creatively imagine what that means as we get our community on board through mentorships, third-service providers, banks, and the packaging of their initiatives. We have to go through a learning process and ask questions like ‘where you at and how can I help you’? People have been turned down because they didn’t know what they didn’t know.”

Disparities Become Obvious

While there had always been a concern that economic development funds weren’t making their way into Washington Heights, McCoy says it was a march downtown this past summer involving the 846 Men and Women that was the catalyst for community conversations about funding disparities. The group’s members were marching to draw attention to the death of George Floyd and these funding disparities and how it not only impacts  Washington Heights, but also the landscape for Black-owned businesses in the downtown area.

8:46 represents the minutes and seconds that a Minneapolis police officer had his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Fobbs says this death was a glaring example of the oppression faced by Black people in all areas of their lives, including economic opportunities.

The 846 Movement is a group of Black men and women showing a unified front as the call for community economic development, economic empowerment, and group economics starting in the business district of the Washington Heights Community. The group agrees to actively and consciously pursue that economic interest together to create a sustainable and secure economy for themselves.

Chris McCoy of New Level Sports Ministries.“We recognized that economic development had stopped at Washington Street East and did not come west which is what we call the Washington Heights business district and New Level’s Youth Village development,” McCoy says. “We asked why that was and became somewhat aggressive in wanting those lines expanded to Washington Heights which is to the west.

“If you drive on Michigan Avenue and cross Washington Avenue it looks like an entirely different city. There are hundreds of millions of dollars in investment in the heart of downtown, but it didn’t include People of Color.”

Not long after the march, conversations began among stakeholders, most notably WKKF, New Level Sports Ministries, and Battle Creek Unlimited about what needed to happen to open funding opportunities to the Washington Heights community.

Sobieralski says he thinks Battle Creek is light years ahead of many other communities in talking about equitable outcomes from an economic development standpoint. He says the social unrest and of the past year has heightened a sense of urgency to create a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive platform.

“If you are not funding work based on equitable outcomes and uplifting people in those communities, you’re doing a disservice to economic development. This is and should be the wave for the next decade or longer,” he says. “From a purely economic development and economics lens, we’ve got a lot of able bodies and individuals who can contribute to the greater good of our community. The more we can improve the economic conditions of these folks who have been left behind, the better off our community is going to be.”

Landyn Warren, 8, a student at Endeavor Charter Academy watches a video at New Level’s after-school program Friday afternoon.The bottomline for McCoy is that, “There’s not a lot of Black-owned real estate in downtown. West of Washington Street we own buildings and land. The financial stimulus through the Entrepreneurial Fund will enable us to own more land.”

“We sat with BCU for months and started to discuss what it could look like and present a concept to the community and get feedback until we had something that made sense so that the community could collectively own what we’re creating,” Fobbs says. “We are reimagining what redevelopment could look like including Washington Heights. It makes economic sense to invest because there’s a lot of commerce possible.”

The Entrepreneurial Fund is the result of those community conversations and the evolution of the Downtown Battle Creek Real Estate Improvement Fund, Sobieralski says. That fund was established in 2019 with a $2 million infusion from WKKF to assist developers looking to redevelop property downtown.

“It surprised me a little bit,” says Sobieralski of the way Opportunity Zone lines were drawn. “Opportunity zones were really intended to funnel investment into certain census tracts and one would be Washington Heights.”

An Opportunity Zone is an economically-distressed community where private investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for capital gain tax incentives. Opportunity Zones were created under the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, to stimulate economic development and job creation, by incentivizing long-term investments in low-income neighborhoods.

The money never got to Washington Heights.

McCoy says, “Too much happened to think that this was unintentional” with regard to the lack of economic development dollars.

“The vision we have and have had with the Youth Village made it more glaring that we were not being included in the redevelopment of downtown and that investment was not getting across Washington Street,” he says. “We began to ask why we were not included. We have a very good plan and support from our community, especially the Black community.”

In 2016, McCoy announced plans to create a Youth Village that will serve more than 800 urban youth, from infants to high school graduates. Their current space will expand to take up 16 acres from Champion to Jackson and Kendall to Cass streets. The $3 million complex will house a football field, basketball court, a 24-hour daycare service for teen parents, a children’s garden, and a licensed kitchen where kids can learn to cook and cater meals, in addition to housing and businesses.

“We are looking for transformational investment, not a basketball program to bring African American boys in to play basketball,” McCoy said in a 2018 story for Second Wave of Southwest Michigan. “Changing a community can only be done when you put the money in hands of the community. We can’t have someone outside of our community telling us what to do with that money.”
The football field became a reality in September 2018 at a cost of $1 million. It is part of the overall plans for the Youth Village that is part of New Level Sports Ministries. Funding continues to be sought for the completion of the project.

As this work continues, McCoy says he and others began purchasing property surrounding the Youth Village acreage. 

“We have property all over Washington Heights,” he says. To maintain confidentiality, he did not disclose the size or location of these properties.

“Property in the Washington Heights community, the Youth Village, and the business district needs to be improved so it can serve as venues for businesses or potential entrepreneurs. The problem is ownership of real estate, property, and space and that’s why we started purchasing property and buildings around the Youth Village. The challenge has always been ownership.”

Too often African Americans and People of Color have been unable to meet that challenge, according to a White Paper published by the Aspen Institute. Specifically, while white and Asian Americans hold one-third of their assets in business and financial assets, Hispanics and blacks hold only 15 percent and 8 percent, respectively, of their wealth in these forms.

“We have to be creative now in purchasing buildings and spaces and pairing business economics and co-op models that will help our people and People of Color to start and run good businesses,” McCoy says. “We’ve always had to be creative. We’ve got a good start now and good foundations.”

What it Could Look Like

One of the initial goals for McCoy is to get vacant buildings west of Washington Street into move-in-ready condition for one or more business owners. While some of these buildings could be occupied by a single owner, they also could provide co-op or shared space for multiple business owners.

“We want to upgrade buildings west of Washington and we will be making sure that those upgrades are aesthetically correct so that it inspires commerce and economic development so that when you’re driving down Michigan Avenue it looks good in Washington Heights,” Fobbs says.

From a practical needs standpoint, McCoy says he’d like to see food markets that offer healthy food, something that is lacking in Washington Heights which he refers to as a “food desert.” He says it’s possible that an existing barbershop there could expand its business model to include a retail component with beauty supplies and a school.

He also discusses ways to monetize the football field at New Level by offering things like training programs for athletes. Then there is an opportunity to locate an urgent care facility with medical providers of color, dry cleaners, a Kumon method tutoring center to teach mathematics and reading primarily for young students, or a credit union. Literally, nothing is off the table because there is a need for businesses of all kinds in the neighborhood.

McCoy says there could be a performing arts center where the neighborhood’s young people could record and perform live 

“We are being creative and reimagining as a group and practicing group economics,” he says. “We want to make sure our young people have the opportunity to open up their own convenience stores or gas stations. The money can circulate within what’s in our community and change our community wealth-wise. This will bring pride to our people and help our young people see that it can be done. Educating our young people to see that they can invest at young ages gives us space and a spot to build those systems to preserve our culture and move people ahead.”

In his mind, Fobbs envisions a fitness center and the creation of a restaurant district offering soul food and other types of ethnic food as well as a restaurant that has live jazz music so “adults have somewhere to hang out.”

Sobieralski says an eclectic business mix will create a vibrant environment that will be a big draw for the Washington Heights community. “When you create that type of an environment and make it welcoming it breaks down barriers because someone who may have never gone into that neighborhood will go in,” he says.

As the reimagining begins to take a more visible form, McCoy says he would be remiss if he didn’t mention the hard work of others who came before him to create positive change in Washington Heights.

“We’ve been able to do what we’ve done because we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Their ceiling became our floor,” McCoy says. “A lot of Black leadership fought for what is going on now.”

More information on the Washington Heights Entrepreneurial Program can be found here or here. There will be a Q&A session at NLSM’s 2021 Leadership Summit on March 20. For more event details, please call (269) 964-4172. Program applications will be accepted beginning May 1.

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.