In a major vote of confidence for an emerging center for Black businesses on Madison’s South Side, the state’s top economic development agency on Tuesday said it plans to relocate to the future business hub from its offices Downtown.
Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. Secretary Missy Hughes said the move to the Urban League of Greater Madison’s Black Business Hub underscores WEDC’s evolving focus under her leadership to strengthen relationships with small businesses and entrepreneurs. The agency has been located in the Tommy G. Thompson Center on the corner of West Washington Avenue and South Fairchild Street, about one block from the state Capitol, since its creation in 2011.
“This really reflects the next stage of WEDC as an organization,” Hughes told the Wisconsin State Journal. “We have been growing up for the last 10 years and now, to really become a part of the business community, we need to be in the business community, and this gives us a chance to do that. So we’re excited about that and excited about the energy that it will bring to Madison and diverse communities.”
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Officials plan to break ground early next year for the hub, which is slated to be built at the Village on Park mall property. The project is expected to be finished by the end of 2022 and WEDC plans to relocate to the facility the following spring or summer. Of WEDC’s roughly 120 employees in the state, about 90 currently work in Madison and will be moving to the hub.
The hub is intended to be the region’s “premiere Black-led enterprise center devoted to assisting under-served entrepreneurs” and will provide physical space for business owners of color to set up shop, offer entrepreneurial support services and create a collaborative environment.
Hughes said WEDC has reached the end of its lease with the state Department of Administration for the agency’s current office space and the hub offers the opportunity to downsize to a smaller space and have more direct contact with business owners and entrepreneurs.
“We’ve really looked for a space that is embedded in economic development in Wisconsin where things are happening and changing, because as much as we can be on the forefront of understanding what our businesses are experiencing, we can also be developing the tools to help them,” Hughes said.
Urban League president and CEO Ruben Anthony said with WEDC as the hub’s anchor tenant the hub will boast the largest concentration of support services for minority-owned businesses in the state.
“Having WEDC move there is going to be like adding rocket fuel to the work that we’re already doing,” Anthony said.
The hub is planned to be a four-story, approximately 76,000-square-foot building that would replace a portion of the mall’s parking lot where South Park Street meets Hughes Place. At least 15 businesses are expected to have a permanent presence in the hub, with temporary kiosks or pop-up-style setups for another seven to 10 businesses.
Ruben said the hub project aims to spark a “renaissance” on Madison’s South Side.
“This project gives us an opportunity to be a part of how South Madison will look in the future,” he said. “This time, it’s not without the vision of African American leaders.”
The city of Madison, Dane County, the Madison Black Chamber of Commerce and the Madison Community Development Authority are among the organizations partnering with the Urban League on the project.
WEDC this summer awarded the Urban League a $400,000 grant that will be used to provide loans, grants and technical assistance to startups and existing businesses considering moving to the hub.
“This is the type of economic development that we need to do, where agencies and governors are not just talking, they’re actually doing something,” Anthony said. “So by supporting our hub through the accelerator program and now moving in to kind of get in the trenches with us — we couldn’t ask for a better gift.”
In her first two years leading WEDC since being appointed by Gov. Tony Evers in 2019, Hughes has broadened the agency’s overall direction from controversial deals like the one for the Foxconn project in southeast Wisconsin to include an added emphasis on small businesses and rural communities.
WEDC has and will continue to offer incentives to large employers, but Hughes said there’s also a need for a focus on underrepresented business owners and entrepreneurs.
“We often find ourselves going to visit the large businesses,” she said. “But by embedding ourselves with the small businesses and the entrepreneurs, we can really understand what they need for resources, what they need for support and be able to actively engage in providing that support.”
Tim Lakin, spokesman for Sen. Dan Feyen, who sits on the WEDC board of directors, said the senator is largely supportive of WEDC’s plans to relocate, but has followed up with Hughes for details on the lease and availability of state-owned property.
“We just want to find out exactly what the parameters are, but he’s generally supportive of it,” Lakin said. “I don’t think that economic development has to take place in downtown Madison, it can take place anywhere.”
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