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New entrepreneur center could spark growth in Dallas' Fair Park neighborhood

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Written by Melissa Repko with dallasnews.com.

In his southern Dallas neighborhood, George Battle III can hear the subtle hum of business, despite the vacant lots and shuttered shops. He knows a woman who makes flower arrangements in her home, caterers who cook in church kitchens, and a man who does carpentry and plumbing work.

"It's almost like they're below grass-roots," he said.

Those hidden entrepreneurs will soon get their own kind of storefront: an entrepreneur center at the corner of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards.

The Fair Park District Entrepreneur Center, or the District for short, will be funded by the United Methodist Church's North Texas Conference as part of the Zip Code Connection, an initiative to spark economic growth in areas with generational poverty. The center is expected to open in March or April.

The new entrepreneur center will be across town from most of Dallas' startup hubs and co-working spaces. Its surroundings -- an empty plot of land, a boarded-up convenience store and panhandlers -- reflect the struggles of the Fair Park neighborhood.

Jay Scroggins, left, and George Battle III plan to open the Fair Park District Entrepreneur Center in the building in the background at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and Malcolm X Blvd.  The goal of the center is to provide tools to local residents who would like to start or grow their business.Rex C. Curry/Special Contributor
Jay Scroggins, left, and George Battle III plan to open the Fair Park District Entrepreneur Center in the building in the background at Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and Malcolm X Blvd. The goal of the center is to provide tools to local residents who would like to start or grow their business.
Rex C. Curry/Special Contributor

Instead of hosting startups with the latest app or gadget, it will focus on entrepreneurship that creates jobs and meets neighborhood needs, said Battle, the director of Zip Code Connection for South Dallas Fair Park.

Battle would like to see locals start businesses like a copy shop, an internet cafe, a company that paves driveways and parking lots, bakeries and produce stores.

"The sky's the limit for any entrepreneur in Dallas Fair Park," he said. "You name it, there will be a need. There will be a market for it."

In Fair Park, the economic obstacles go beyond the vacant lots. Its ZIP code, 75215, represents the poorest urban area in Dallas County, according to U.S. Census data. More than half of households fall below the federal poverty line with incomes under $23,550 for a family of four. About 30 percent of adults over age 25 don't have a high school diploma. Some don't have cars and must get a job they can reach by walking or taking public transportation. Others have a criminal history that bars them from some jobs.

Many of the approximately 15,000 local residents juggle two or three minimum-wage jobs or rely on day labor or contract work to pay the rent, said Jay Scroggins, executive director of the public improvement district in Southern Dallas Fair Park.

Mayor Mike Rawlings has pushed for revitalization of southern Dallas through his GrowSouth initiative. He's advocated for privatizing and overhauling the Fair Park grounds. In the future, he said, he'd like to see the entrepreneur center move into a rehabbed building there.

City Council member Tiffinni Young, who represents the area, said the entrepreneur center can create organic growth. It can connect residents to advice and resources that turn their skills into business ventures.

"I want to make sure every chance possible, I'm pushing hope to the constituents I represent," she said. "This is another avenue to push that hope."

The entrepreneur center will open in a one-story former dry cleaner that has boarded-up windows, fire damage and a colorful mural on the side of the building with "Believe" painted in capital letters.

Starting later this month, the building will undergo a $250,000 to $300,000 renovation for electrical work and plumbing. It will get office space, whiteboards, a coffee bar, a stage for events and a rooftop patio with umbrella tables.

Like other co-working spaces, entrepreneurs will be able to rent desks or cubicles. They can also attend events or meet with a mentor.

The center will have a three-person staff and volunteer mentors who guide entrepreneurs through the steps of starting a business, Battle said

The District will be part of a growing network of entrepreneur centers affiliated with the Dallas Entrepreneur Center. It will be a franchise of the nonprofit organization. The DEC has satellite locations in Addison and Denton and a franchise in San Antonio. Later this year, it plans to open three more satellite locations in southern Dallas at Red Bird Mall, Paul Quinn College and University of North Texas at Dallas.

Doric Earle, an economic development consultant for the project, will serve as the liaison between the DEC and the District.

Pinson & Cole's Gourmet Pickles owner Stephanie Pinson-Cole poses with some of her most popular pickles at the Cornerstone Church Cafeteria. Since 2011, she has been making and perfecting 18 varieties of canned pickles, including Feisty, Sour Apples and Cheesecake. Tom Fox/Staff Photographer
Pinson & Cole's Gourmet Pickles owner Stephanie Pinson-Cole poses with some of her most popular pickles at the Cornerstone Church Cafeteria. Since 2011, she has been making and perfecting 18 varieties of canned pickles, including Feisty, Sour Apples and Cheesecake. 
Tom Fox/Staff Photographer

The District could give a boost to mom-and-pop businesses that already operate in Fair Park, like Pinson & Cole's Gourmet Pickles. Stephanie Pinson-Cole, a 63-year-old grandmother who lives in Fair Park, learned how to pickle from her grandparents, who pickled okra, carrots and onions.

Pinson & Cole Gourmet Pickles has 18 flavors of pickles, from exotic ones like sour apple and cheesecake to a spicy pickle called the Gosh Darn. Pinson-Cole sells the jars at food festivals. She hit her record of about $12,000 in pickle sales in 2016. At last year's Taste of Dallas, her cheesecake pickles sold out. Her pickles are now part of gift baskets for guests at the Hampton Inn in Addison.

Pinson & Cole Pickles are sold at food festivals. Last year, its founder Stephanie Pinson-Cole said she sold out of cheesecake pickles at Taste of Dallas.Tom Fox/Staff Photographer
Pinson & Cole Pickles are sold at food festivals. Last year, its founder Stephanie Pinson-Cole said she sold out of cheesecake pickles at Taste of Dallas.
Tom Fox/Staff Photographer

If the pickle business keeps growing, she may quit her day job as a school bus driver. She has her eye on a storefront where she could warehouse her pickles and sell them with sandwiches and wings. The empty building is a short walk from the Fair Park grounds. It needs a bit of love, she said, but it would be the perfect place to call her own.

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AT A GLANCE

The new entrepreneurship center is opening in the Fair Park area, a low-income, high unemployment neighborhood. The North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church, which is funding the project, hopes the center will spark job creation. Here's a look at some neighborhood data:

15, 231 -- Population within the 75215 ZIP code

$38,540 -- Mean household income

Over 1 in 4 families live below the federal poverty level.

29 percent of people over 25 do not have a high school diploma.

13 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher.

2 of 3 housing units are occupied by renters.

49 percent of people age 16 or older are not in the labor force.

SOURCE: Zip Code Connection

Dallas Entrepreneur Center Targets South Dallas for Expansion

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The incubator will open four locations across the southern region with help from its new partners.

 

The Dallas Entrepreneur Center is expanding into South Dallas, reaching a new demographic of entrepreneurs as it opens four locations.

“As we’ve taken our model and begun to expand to other cities, we’re learning how to build ecosystems, which is really important in Dallas,” said Trey Bowles, CEO of the DEC. “We just want to make sure Dallas is the best place possible for any entrepreneur, regardless of age, race, or gender. We’re leveling the playing field.”

The center, which already has locations in Addison, Denton, San Antonio, and the West End, will have new centers at Southwest Center Mall, formerly known as Red Bird Mall, and in the Fair Park area. It also will open satellite locations at the University of North Texas at Dallas and another at Paul Quinn College. The Red Bird Mall Entrepreneur Center and The Fair Park District Entrepreneur Center are expected to open in April, and the two satellite locations are scheduled for fall openings.

The new southern region, called the Southern Dallas Entrepreneur Network, will be led by executive director Michelle Williams, president of the Dallas-Fort Worth Urban League Young Professionals and a former director of the Dallas nonprofit Leadership ISD. Williams will be based out of the Red Bird Mall Entrepreneur Center.

“My personal mission is fighting for equity and advocacy across the city,” Williams said, adding that the DEC’s mission lined up with hers. “That really fuels the work that I do, and I bring that same energy into the DEC.”

The Red Bird Mall Entrepreneur Center will be the largest of the new locations, occupying 7,500 to 10,000 square feet when the mixed-use development is redeveloped in the next few years. It will initially open in a smaller space in an adjacent building off Westmoreland.

The mall, which opened in 1975, unveiled redevelopment plans on Saturday that include a Marriott Courtyard, office space, parks, and apartments. The DEC will help fill the need for a local incubator—a request made by the community, said Peter Brodsky, who bought a large portion of the mall in September. The announcement came shortly after Southwest Center Mall was identified as one of the locations where a Macy’s would close.

“What’s happening all over the country is the anchor department stores are closing, because they’re getting hurt by Amazon and internet shopping,” Brodsky said. “So what’s happening around the country, and what I intend to do, is that [the malls] are being ‘de-malled.’”

That means redeveloping the shopping center into a mixed-use development, replacing big box anchors with other attractions that will support the community like the DEC, he explained. While there’s no definite timeline on the completion of the redevelopment, Brodsky expects to begin within the year.

The Red Bird Mall Entrepreneur Center will function much like the DEC in the West End. It will be led by a regional director—in this case Williams—who will oversee programming and services.

The new Fair Park location, called The Fair Park District Entrepreneur Center, will function under the franchise model, similar to that of the San Antonio Entrepreneur Center. The District, for short, will occupy 5,000 square feet of space at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X boulevards, a location that was chosen to serve as a symbol of racial equality and interfaith collaboration. The District will receive a blueprint for the center from the DEC and will run independently.

The District is the result of a partnership between the DEC and The ZIP Code Connection, a project led by the North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church to eradicate poverty in South Dallas and East Texas. The District is being funded by The ZIP Code Connection, which is supported by churches within its network.

“Our collective main goal was to identify or create trained people, living and working in places, who are in livable career path jobs within the South Dallas Fair Park District,” Rev. George Battle, director of The ZIP Code Connection, wrote in an email. “An incubator for business and development needs became the first outcome from all the activities our … team did.”

The DEC’s two satellite locations will provide students and faculty at Paul Quinn and UNTD with the opportunity to engage in entrepreneurial activities.

“The idea of entrepreneurship is a very powerful one,” said Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn. “When you are an under-resourced community, no one thinks of entrepreneurship as a way out … [but] because of entrepreneurship, it changed the economic circumstances of my family. In one generation, my family went from a man who never went to a college to a son who’s the president of a college.”

“We’re trying to do a lot of things,” added Bob Mong, president of UNTD. “Part of it is to increase college-going participation, and the other is to increase the economic relevance of the area. There’s a ripple effect in the community, creating more economic opportunities, more businesses, more people buying homes in the area. I see it as a pattern of our activities … to create more vitality in the area.”

South Dallas has long been a priority for Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who launched the Grow South initiative in 2011 to jump-start economic development in South Dallas, a lower-income area. While the new locations represent a huge step in growth for the DEC, they’re not the last, said Bowles. The DEC has other partners and deals in the pipeline that he expects to announce soon. The DEC will provide further information on the Dallas startup community at its State of Entrepreneurship presentation during Dallas Startup Week in April.

“We believe we should make our programming available all across North Texas and the state,” Bowles said. “Any place that doesn’t have an initiative to support entrepreneurs, we’re interested in.”

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