In July 2020, a month after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, Ruben Anthony Jr. stood at a podium in front of Urban League of Greater Madison and announced that his organization planned to build an incubator for Black and minority-owned businesses, and that Dane County would give $100,000 to pay for the planning.
Now, after four years of fundraising and nearly two years of construction, the four-story, 81,000-square-foot, $25.5-million Black Business Hub stands just yards from where the Urban League CEO made the announcement. Located at the corner of South Park Street and Hughes Place, it’s an emblem of the transformation underway on Madison’s south side.
Though the building is still under construction, with an official opening planned for spring 2024, it’s already started hosting events and welcoming tenants.
Summit Credit Union was the first to move in, opening a full-service branch inside the Hub about six weeks ago. The nonprofit Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC), has moved in too, coaching new and aspiring business owners at its new office on the Hub’s third floor. On the second floor, office space sits ready for the Madison Black Chamber of Commerce, which will soon relocate from about a mile up Park Street.
Next week, the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce will rent the lobby for a networking event, and in January, Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity will celebrate its Founders’ Day there. “The space is already in high demand,” Anthony said.
The lobby is camera-ready, with a minimalist aesthetic and wall-to-wall windows looking onto South Park Street. But the four adjoining commercial suites, which will eventually hold stores and restaurants, remain under construction, so they were hidden behind curtains for the Hub’s Urban Cabaret fundraiser event in October.
“We’re building it and flying it at the same time,” Anthony said, gesturing to the blueprints and renderings perched on easels around the lobby.
Five floors of support
The Hub is the brainchild of Anthony, Urban League executive vice president Edward Lee and former president of Forward Community Investments Salli Martyniak. They envisioned a massive incubator for minority-owned businesses, a one-stop shop for everything Madisonians of color would need to start and grow businesses. It was inspired by Milwaukee’s Sherman Phoenix project, which transformed a building burned in the 2016 Sherman Park riots into a home for Black entrepreneurs.
Designed by Black architect Rafeeq Asad of Monona-based JLA Architects, the Hub features the drama, asymmetry and angularity of the “Black aesthetic,” Anthony said.
When it’s complete, it will have space for at least 90 businesses and agencies. Some will be established, “destination” entities whose customers will head to the new building just to find them, including an Afro-Caribbean restaurant that Anthony declined to name because the deal is still in the works. There will be a barber shop, a beauty school and a podcasting company. Cancer diagnostics company Exact Sciences, which for several years has partnered with Urban League to train potential employees for its laboratory, is one of the biggest names to rent space in the building.
But most of the businesses housed in the Hub will be small and new, including those just getting started and those that have operated for years without a brick-and-mortar home.
On the first floor, the Hub has two shared zones where around a dozen vendors not ready for a full shop can rent just enough room to display their goods. In the fourth floor co-working space, people will be able to rent offices or desks for $200 to $650 a month.
“Right now, a lot of professional service businesses are working out of Starbucks … partly because they can’t afford the overhead,” Anthony said. The co-working area is still in the works, with some walls still to be added. When that’s done, it will have room for 50 to 60 members.
The lower level, meanwhile, is primarily for food entrepreneurs. Appliances are set to arrive next week for the commercial kitchen, designed as a place where food truck operators and home bakers can cook and store their products, similar to FEED Kitchens on Madison’s north side.
“We know that there’s a need, especially on this side of town, to have this commercial kitchen, because most of the commercial kitchens in Madison are at capacity,” Anthony said.
The third floor is designed to connect entrepreneurs with a variety of resources needed to start or grow their businesses, from insurance and investors to advice. Among the economic development entities setting up “outposts” in the Hub are Forward Community Investments, Hope Community Capital, WWBIC and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which is trading its downtown office for a sleek, open-plan suite with big windows in the Hub.
“Our intent was not to just build a building to house businesses but … (to build) an economic support system that allows businesses from every different stage to grow and develop and have the support right here: banking support, insurance support, financial support – all that right in the building,” Anthony said.
“We’ll have more economic development support in this building than any other building in the whole state.”
Rooftop view of the ‘renaissance’
Beyond the building itself, the Hub will offer grants, loans and training to support entrepreneurs. Since 2022, Urban League has paid startup accelerator gener8tor to offer gALPHA and gBETA, two preparation programs for those looking to start or expand businesses. The new project has also served the organization’s long-standing construction skills training program, with two cohorts of trainees putting their skills to work on site during the building process.
It’s all part of the vision to support a wide range of businesses, “from consulting all the way down to cooking businesses,” Anthony said.
“We’re going to address the whole life cycle of businesses: new businesses, existing businesses, expanding businesses, startups, all that.”
There’s no shortage of takers. More than 180 people, businesses and organizations have asked to be affiliated with the Hub. Urban League staff are currently reviewing each request to determine whether to offer space in the building or in a training program.
“I really feel like this is going to be an asset in this community for many years to come, many decades to come, and I’m just happy to be a part of that,” Anthony said.
Urban League’s Hub is just one piece of what’s been called a “renaissance” on Madison’s south side, led by local nonprofits looking to make the neighborhood, and the city as a whole, a better place for people of color.
From a south-facing balcony on the building’s fourth floor, Anthony can see that renaissance taking shape.
He points a block west to the soon-to-open new home of the nonprofit Centro Hispano, which has served Madison’s Latino community for 40 years. Due south is Madison College’s Goodman Campus, opened in 2019, designed with Black and brown students in mind. And just east is the future site of the Center of Black Excellence and Culture, slated to open in 2025 as a “cultural home” for Black Madison.
“The renaissance is not just talk anymore. It’s actually happening,” Anthony said. “A couple years from now, this whole area is going to change.”
As the Cap Times’ business and local economy reporter, Natalie Yahr writes about challenges and opportunities facing workers, entrepreneurs and job seekers. Before moving to Madison in 2018, she lived in New Orleans, where she trained as a Spanish-English interpreter and helped adult students earn high school equivalencies. Support journalism like this by becoming a Cap Times member. To comment on this story, submit a letter to the editor.