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A new commercial development underway in Englewood is set to become home to three local businesses — a barber shop, design firm and consignment boutique — thanks to a unique business-real estate co-op model which seeks to revolutionize the way small and minority-owned businesses grow and thrive across the city.
Known as E.G. Woode, the property is located at 63rd and May on Chicago’s South Side and will provide critical resources, like marketing and real estate, to entrepreneurs who traditionally lack access to much-needed capital and other support that would aid in the development of their businesses.
The property is designed to provide a stable, affordable location for small and expanding businesses while also serving as a community meeting place. By giving Englewood entrepreneurs a leg-up, and putting a vacant building to use, E.G. Woode provides much needed investment on 63rd street.
LISC recently closed on a loan to the project with the support of JPMorgan Chase and Fifth Third Bank through the Entrepreneurs of Color Fund and Benefit Chicago. The City of Chicago’s Retail Thrive Zone provided the financial momentum needed to get the economic development model off the ground.
“We’ve been working for 10 years to drive investment into the neighborhood to support the community’s vision,” said Meghan Harte, executive director of LISC Chicago. “What we’ve seen is that when investments come, they don’t always create maximum opportunities for wealth for people in the neighborhood. This particular investment does just that, it takes a building that was unused and unkempt and puts it into productive use, it supports a local developer, and it supports his vision of creating more community wealth through a social enterprise.”
The idea for E.G. Woode sprung from Deon Lucas, a 35-year-old West Side native who grew up in North Lawndale and East Garfield Park.
An architect by trade who has been designing since 16, Lucas said from a young age he didn’t want his talent, passion or ideas to be put into a box.
As a teenage student at George Westinghouse College Prep, Lucas was a three-time winner of the Newhouse Architecture Competition, which gave him his first foray into the design and community-building world.
During his junior year of high school, he earned an internship with architecture firm Smith & Smith Associates, where he continued working every summer until graduating college in 2006.
By the time the City of Chicago launched its Neighborhood Opportunity Fund and Retail Thrive Zone programs, Lucas was deep into volunteer work on the South Side with Teamwork Englewood and the neighborhood’s Quality-of-Life planning, where he spent time meeting and hearing from local entrepreneurs and community members on what they wanted to see in the neighborhood.
Many of the business owners he spoke with said they were interested in taking part of the Retail Thrive Zone opportunity, but didn’t think they could.
Rather than a dead end, Lucas saw potential for a creative solution. Instead of applying for grants individually, Lucas and a handful of business owners decided to form a collective and applied as a group, with Lucas spearheading the real estate aspect of the project.
“This was a really good opportunity for small businesses to develop themselves, but a lot of them didn’t have the capacity, or the knowledge and understanding, to apply for the grant,” Lucas said. “So what I did was canvassed a few businesses and I pitched to them: ‘If you apply for this grant, not only will I help you with your grant application, I’ll do all of your cost estimating, your project design, as long as you hire me as the architect.’ And that was the beginnings of what was to become E.G. Woode.”
As a collective, each business could help one another using each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
“If we did it together, I thought it would make for a stronger application,” Lucas said. “I really only expected a few of us to get the award — and they gave it to all of us. That was the eye-opener for the team, because they didn’t expect to win at all. But we won, and that changed things for them.”
“I gathered all the entrepreneurs and said, ‘This is way beyond what I expected, and this idea that we’ve created is beyond us. We’re the driving force behind it, but it feels different,’” Lucas said. “It didn’t feel like something we started for ourselves anymore, it felt like something that could benefit more entrepreneurs.”
Similar to a co-op, the building’s tenants will be owners of the E.G. Woode entity, sharing the cost of vital business resources such as accounting, marketing, and more.
Each business — Powell’s Barber Shop, Marie Wesley Consignment and Beehyyve Design Studio — will occupy 3,900 square feet within the building. During the off-hours, the building, including its rooftop, will be available for community use and private events for a nominal rental fee. The name E.G. Woode pays homage to the community the development serves: Englewood.
Entrepreneurs in the building own 51% of the E.G. Woode collective, and 100% of their businesses.
Lucas noted that investments typically look for a financial return, not a socioeconomic one — E.G. Woode does both, he said, by providing invaluable resources and tools to empower local entrepreneurs, while also renovating an unused building, brightening up a neighborhood block, and offering a space for community gatherings in the future.
“It’s very galvanizing, and I think the people around us are galvanized about it,” he said.
E.G. Woode is the latest example of what can happen when partnerships form between public and private entities — private capital helps small business owners gain access to the essential resources they need, which in-turn helps grow the local economy and creates the maximum opportunity for community wealth.
“Conversely, if we didn’t have all those financial partners like Benefit Chicago, Chase and the City of Chicago come together, in any other project it would be someone looking to purchase and flip, and maximize their own personal wealth. They would be able to go and get that traditional bank financing and then a mortgage — but this is different, and at every level we’ve combined the tools we’ve got to make it happen.”
Dr. William Towns, executive director of Benefit Chicago, said this was the exact type of project his organization seeks to support, and, that by working with LISC, the public-private support model truly comes to life.
Particularly with Benefit Chicago, the trickle-down effect starts directly with Chicagoans who care about the city. Residents, businesses, civic leaders and more make investments to Benefit Chicago, which in turn provides investment capital to organizations like LISC they can have the financial support to spend time and energy needed at the community-level to fully develop ideas and projects. Once those ideas have gone through the community process and are fully vetted, Benefit Chicago uses that money invested by Chicagoans to bring those community-led projects to life.
“The Benefit Chicago-LISC partnership is really an ideal one, because we don’t have the staff and capacity to work in each of these neighborhoods on the ground with the entrepreneurs and nonprofits — and LISC doesn’t have the patient, flexible capital that we have,” he added. “So in these partnerships you really bring two sides together: the risk-tolerant capital, with the on-the-ground, small business expertise that LISC has, and it’s in this relationship where entrepreneurs really benefit.”
JPMorgan Chase and Fifth Third Bank’s support to LISC via its Entrepreneurs of Color Fund serves as a financial backstop on the project.
Ultimately, its programs, partnerships and non-traditional developments like these that help even the playing field among both business owners and investors.
“We need more people to try. We have so many good entrepreneurs out there who are sitting and waiting because they’re afraid no one will help them,” Lucas said. “And it’s not that people don’t want to help, but more often than not, when you go to a lender or an investor, they expect you to be at a certain level before they even want to do business with you — but people aren’t there because they haven’t been given the chance yet.”
“What E.G. Woode does is say, ‘Don’t worry so much about where they are now, what we need them to do is understand we have a team of individuals who’s there for them when they’re ready to launch. We’re trying to remove the delay and get them active into the neighborhood.”
Lucas, Harte and Towns agreed they would love to see the model spread to other parts of the city, in particular the South and West sides.
“We hope this will be one of many projects we work with LISC on surrounding the revitalization of 63rd Street,” Towns said.