For more than a decade, community-based business owners Kiyomi Rollins and Mark Eschoe have empowered black-owned businesses through their platform, the annual Ujamaafest Cooperative Economics Expo.
Ujamaafest has provided technical assistance to marketplace vendors with financial literacy support, vendor set up, logistics and ongoing small business support.
But, Rollins admitted that she and her business partner always wondered, “What if we can create a space where they disrupt the current power structure of inequity in commercial real estate in Atlanta?
“What if we can lead a movement rooted in collaboration and community that creates a holistic new system?
“What if we can transform our communities by preserving legacy black-owned businesses in Atlanta through creative cooperative economic models?
“What if we could create a space to dream, plan, and “ke’nekt”?
So when an opportunity became available to turn those “what-ifs” into reality, Rollins and Eschoe did just that. The husband and wife team embarked upon a new Southwest Atlanta development project that the community of Westview now affectionally calls, “The Ke’nekt.”
“Atlanta has struggled for decades with the racial and socioeconomic divides that are so evident in our city,” said Matt Westmoreland, Post 2 At-Large member of the Atlanta City Council. “And for the better part of a decade, we’ve wrestled with the worst income inequality in the country combined with rapid gentrification and displacement in longtime African-American communities.
“There is true fear and anger in our community as families are being priced out of their own neighborhood — either by investors buying and flipping homes on their street or by multi-million dollar developments around the corner,” he continued. “If we aren’t intentional and equitable in how this city develops, we will look up soon and see an Atlanta that legacy residents, and their children, won’t be able to call home.”
Knowing that every day, this is the reality of so many that call Atlanta home, Rollins said the Ke’nekt is dedicated to doing their part to ensure that residents have a space to engage in entrepreneurship.
This spring, the husband and wife team plan to launch the first cooperative economics retail incubator in Atlanta through their open capital campaign which has a goal of $75,000.
The Ke’nekt is an intentional and equitable space that will allow established legacy businesses, start-up concepts, and micro pop-ups to occupy a cooperative space that fosters business education and growth.
Rollins said the Ke’nekt’s primary focus will be providing support to black-owned businesses whose owners find themselves challenged to secure mainstream traditional commercial opportunities.
The objective is to provide sustainable leasing opportunities for up to thirteen businesses as well as, promote business ownership through financial literacy support, she explained.
“It is important that communities create their own collaborative cooperative business communities consisting of social entrepreneurs with a commitment to the community where they are located,” Rollins said.
The Ke’nekt is strategically located within the Beltline Overlay District, in the historic community of Westview. The 8,000-sq. ft. compound, originally built in 1954, was a former mechanic garage that was owned and operated by legacy Southwest residents of the Jeter family for 22 years until 2017 when Mr. Jeter passed away.
The Ke’nekt Cooperative Economics Development has already raised $56,000: $11,000 for capital funds and a $45,000 programming grant from the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative.
This development will consist of diverse like-minded individuals and businesses who have a cooperative focus on creating a sustainable community through mindful engagement and collective action.
The cooperative model will allow the community to leverage as well as scale while creating employment and mentorship opportunities.
Businesses will participate in cooperative purchasing, shared resources (including staff), and back-office support, creating an environment where entrepreneurs are mentored to avoid the pitfalls of ownership.
“I know that my ancestors ran for me to have and provide space and opportunity for myself and other Black business owners,” Rollins said during the Southwest Atlanta Opportunity Displacement Zone Townhall on Feb. 26.
“It is imperative that we hold and create space for each other especially in this State of Emergency called the Opportunity Zone, that is displacing our independently-owned businesses in Southwest Atlanta.”
Embracing its community core values and mission statement, The Ke’nekt has already selected four anchor businesses for its space that are all slated to open in early summer:
“Two Haute Brews & Spirits,” a full-service coffee and wine bar run by husband and wife team Michael and Tasha Wright.
Ann Hill-Bond will open “The Table,” a boutique bookstore with a wide array of products, including books, vinyl records, and smalls.
“JM Photography Studios,” owner Jason Mack, will be expanding from Fayetteville into Atlanta, offering full photography services with a focus on capturing memorable experiences for high school seniors.
“The Good Hair Shop,” a staple in the Southwest Atlanta neighborhoods for 12 years, which was also owned and operated by Rollins and Eschoe, will reopen in the space.
“It is refreshing to have community leaders who are willing to sacrifice personal-business brand development to create and provide space for legacy and start-up business on the Southwest side of Atlanta,” said Jason Hudges, president of the Westview Community Organization.
According to Rollins, The Ke’nekt has an active commitment to training and hiring from within the community to include Atlanta University College Center students.
Further, in order to foster sustainability, The Ke’nekt has also developed an anchor strategy to also attract existing businesses who are at risk of displacement.
“In a time when so much is being lost in a rapidly gentrifying city, The Ke’nekt is a space that feels familiar,” said Louis Ali, a resident of Westview community where The Ke’nekt is located. “It’s a space that feels like home. It’s a space that serves as a safe space for people who really need it.”