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‘Why not in Springfield?’ Black Chamber leader opens innovation hub for minority entrepreneurs

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Nika Schoonover/NPR Illinois
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The Springfield Project Executive Director Dominic Watson stands in CAP 1908 Innovation Center at 100 South Grand Ave. E.

Dominic Watson can describe his latest community initiative as executive director of The Springfield Project with just one word: access.

Watson, who also serves as president of the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce, has long envisioned an innovation hub meant to foster minority entrepreneurs. Next month, that vision is finally coming to fruition when Community Access Project (CAP) 1908 is fully up and running in downtown Springfield.

“We’re essentially trying to bring the community together and utilizing CAP 1908 as a vehicle to do so,” Watson said.

Watson, a Springfield native, took the helm at The Springfield Project a little over a year ago after serving on its board since 2016. He says the idea for CAP 1908 has been percolating ever since joining the board.

But long before getting involved with The Springfield Project, Watson has been working on community engagement for his entire professional life. In the mid-aughts, Watson launched his own marketing business at age 22, planning and promoting events that could serve as an alternative to Springfield’s local club and bar scene.

“It led me into learning how to mobilize people around community issues which progressed into politics, and now lobbying,” Watson said.

In addition to leading the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce since 2015, Watson has spent nearly five years lobbying for AFSCME Council 31, Illinois’ largest public employee union. Before that, he spent a handful of years in various roles within state politics and government.

But Watson’s longest-running job as an independent promoter has cemented his roots in Springfield. He recalls the earliest events he planned in late 2006 and early 2007; it started with poetry nights, which evolved into gospel shows – two art forms he’s loved since childhood. Watson grew up singing in the church choir and says his mother “really championed performing arts.”

Margaret Watson moved her family to Springfield from East St. Louis for better opportunities when Watson was a child. The elder Watson has operated her in-home daycare, Twinkies Rainbow Palace, for decades.

“She just became this person who was very, very strategic in how she placed her kids and in the community,” Watson said of his mother. ”She really gave me the roots in the community and the passion to really serve.”

Having witnessed his mother start and grow a small business, in addition to running his own marketing business and helping cultivate a coalition of Black business owners in Springfield, Watson is putting that collective knowledge into CAP 1908.

Watson said he wants the innovation hub to have “a strong component of social well-being, addressing the holistic approaches to equity from an economic perspective.”

The Springfield Project purchased the space for CAP 1908 – a former beauty supply store at 100 South Grand Ave. E. – earlier this year with help from Springfield’s City Council, which provided nearly $180,000 from a Community Development Block Grant to the organization.

A week before Watson and other community leaders posed for photos at a ribbon cutting ceremony at CAP 1908 last month, the space was still relatively empty, save for a couch, a table and a few chairs.

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Nika Schoonover/NPR Illinois
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Dominic Watson, executive director of The Springfield Project, holds up renderings for the CAP 1908 Innovation Center and the surrounding neighborhood.

But Watson was already envisioning a bustling shared office, pointing to future arrangements of desks, and even a coffee station in one corner of the room.

A subsequent visit to CAP 1908 saw the space transformed. Chairs now line the walls and workspaces are scattered throughout, with a few added couches for comfort and plants that brighten the room.

Watson is working on staffing the space with an administrative assistant who will handle the center’s day-to-day operations and a social innovation coordinator who will help with business development and various programming, as well as someone who handles facility maintenance.

By the second week of November, the staff will be at the center full-time.

The space operates on a co-working model, meaning the networking and collaboration component is just as important as the work these entrepreneurs are doing themselves.

“So we’re creating this environment where it’s conducive to building synergy and success for entrepreneurs,” Watson said.

The center will also include youth development programming, which expands on The Springfield Project’s long-running Summer Youth Employment Program, which placed young people throughout various businesses in the community. Instead, CAP 1908 will offer programming at the center to help create workforce development skills for young people.

In the 26 years since The Springfield Project’s conception, the organization has helped foster local small business development, especially downtown and on the city’s east side. The Springfield Project also established a micro-loan program in 2008.

The Springfield Project is based on a similar effort in Atlanta three decades ago. The Atlanta Project, founded by former President Jimmy Carter in the early 1990s, was a community development non-profit focused on bringing the 1996 Summer Olympic Games to that city.

While The Atlanta Project didn’t last beyond the Olympics, its legacy lives on in the lessons The Springfield Project’s founders took from it on their trip to Atlanta years ago. Watson said he’s similarly taking cues from innovation hubs in other communities while shaping CAP 1908, paying attention to “best practices.”

Watson pointed to inspiration from Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, an organization dedicated to business and real estate development in underserved areas on Chicago’s south and west sides.

By working with CAP 1908, Lamb says the Center is hoping to provide research opportunities that will look into issues, including access to health care and food insecurity.

When the space for CAP 1908 was still vacant, the Springfield Project used the space for pop-ups for several months in 2017. The idea was based on similar community organizations in other cities that were utilizing vacant space for happy hours or networking events.

“I was inspired by what I saw elsewhere and thought, why not here, why not in Springfield?” Watson said.

In the next couple of months, Watson said CAP 1908 will focus on increasing its presence and exposure in the community, including through a series of workshops.

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Nika Schoonover/NPR Illinois
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The Springfield Project's CAP 1908 Innovation Center at 100 South Grand Ave. E in Springfield.

After its official launch, Watson said the next step for CAP 1908 is to develop a collaborative event space next door that will house an art gallery, office spaces and even a kitchen incubator to help culinary entrepreneurs develop their skills and start their businesses.

“My goal is to take those cottage kitchen…entrepreneurs and give them tools to start to scale their business to [a] catering business, food truck and ultimately a brick and mortar,” Watson said.

In addition, Watson hopes to include a rooftop space as well for these culinary entrepreneurs to test their skills in an entertainment event format.

Further down the line, Watson would like to see The Springfield Project acquire the old South Town Theater at 1110 S. Grand Ave. E., which is currently the Walch Studio of Stained Glass, and restore it to a performing arts space.

The windows in CAP 1908 are lined with mock-ups and renderings of what the neighborhood block could look like under Watson’s vision – a vision he shares with other community stakeholders.

“Our goal is to take our Neighborhood of Hope Plan – that’s what we’re calling it now – we’re going to rebrand that and try to bring partners to the table to develop the 49 square blocks of opportunity just to the northeast in South Town,” Watson said of the neighborhood between 11th and 12th streets along South Grand.

CAP 1908 has also been working with the University of Illinois Springfield and existing business incubator Innovate Springfield in what may eventually become an official partnership.

Currently, UIS offers education programming for startup entrepreneurs through Innovate Springfield. Bruce Somer, UIS’ director of economic development and innovation, said he’s looking forward to CAP 1908’s official launch.

“We hope that once [entrepreneurs] get more formal education that they’re seeking, that we would be helping partner [to] lead that education around business startups and perhaps even social innovation,” Sommer said.

Molly Lamb, executive director for the UIS Center of State Policy and Leadership, focuses on the advancement of social innovation for the university.

“From a social innovation standpoint we’re really trying to understand complex problems in the community and determinants of those and work toward problem-solving and recommendations to overcome those,” Lamb said.

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