Fairfax County should invest in the economic mobility, well-being and health of its historically marginalized and disadvantaged residents, a Pennsylvania-based developer told the Board of Supervisors’ Economic Advisory Commission on Feb. 16.
The goal is to maximize return on investment, in terms of social impact and the community, said Leon Caldwell of Ujima Developers LLC, who spoke after a presentation concerning economic development in the Route 1 corridor.
Caldwell touted an idea he called “holistic, equitable real-estate development.”
“This is a concept of building back better,” he said. “How do we do that in an equitable way while cultivating talent?”
Ujima Developers LLC last fall began work on the East Parkside project in West Philadelphia, near the Philadelphia Zoo. The project includes investments in affordable, age-friendly housing and will feature Honeysuckle Provisions, a food-retail establishment.
The company also will convert a vacant, two-story, 12,000-square-foot warehouse into a three-story “STEAM²IE Workspaces.” The acronym stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math, Manufacturing, Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
The facility will offer vocational-education opportunities for welding, 3D printing, adaptive manufacturing, information-technology and cyber-security training, textile work and more, Caldwell said. There also will be initiatives to teach people how to do micro-farming and vertical farming in urban spaces, he said.
Caldwell called the project an “Makerspace Model,” an urban, neighborhood-centered economic-mobility strategy.
“It’s a classic ‘makerspace,’ but it’s also a place for small business to incubate,” he said. “It’s the training piece, but also the introduction to the future of work.”
East Parkside will be accessible and walkable, with the workspace located within a 10-minute stroll of the new housing and food store.
“Any jurisdiction’s transportation policy is really about freedom and liberation,” Caldwell said, citing the need to mitigate transportation costs and time, particularly for people of lower economic resources.
The recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has been disproportionate, especially on communities of color, Caldwell said. Workers performing lower-skilled and lower-income jobs also suffered more during the crisis, he said.
Initiatives such as the STEAM²IE Workspaces help establish an equitable framework for cultivating diverse talent for the future of work, Caldwell said.
“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” he said. “There’s still talent in many cities and many places that can be activated.”
Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville), who chairs the Economic Advisory Commission, called Caldwell’s presentation “excellent” and said the East Parkside project was “admirable.”
“I hope we can bring this to other parts of the county,” agreed Supervisor Dalia Palchik (D-Providence), who raised the issue of capital access for minority-owned businesses.
Structural racism undergirds some of that problem, but public-private partnerships could help address the matter, Caldwell said.
“It is really the blended capital that’s necessary,” he said. “Where the marketplace fails minority businesses, or businesses owned by historically disadvantaged folks, the public sector can actually play an important, critical role – whether that’s with credit enhancements, seed funding, things of that nature.”
Caldwell also advocated for “bringing a big stick” to large corporations and financial institutions and asking why such funding failures are happening.
“Access to capital is the most important thing for small businesses and start-ups,” said Esther Lee, president and CEO of Refraction, a McLean-based non-profit group that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship.
Refraction and other organizations are contemplating holding “pitch” events where businesses can make their cases for funding from outside the region, she said.
“Northern Virginia lags other peer regions when it comes to the amount of venture capital and funding,” she said.
President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan calls for investment in a nationwide network of innovation hubs, Lee added.