On a sunny summer afternoon in July, six local minority small business owners stood along the Eastside Trail of the Atlanta BeltLine with ribbon-cutting scissors in hand. Behind them: a backdrop of bold, brightly designed shipping containers, retrofitted and ready to soon become the “brick and mortar” homes of their budding businesses.
With hundreds in attendance from the cross-sections of the Atlanta community, the energy was electric. The atmosphere was filled with excitement and optimism as the day inaugurated the launch of the BeltLine MarketPlace, a pilot project of the BeltLine created in partnership with The Village Market, led by Dr. Lakeysha Hallmon, which provides access to prime commercial real estate at affordable rates.
The businesses were being unveiled as the pioneers of what we at the BeltLine believed – and still do – would be a transformational endeavor, designed to address three major tenants of our organizational mission – equity, access, and opportunity.
That day felt like the culmination of what we’d been working toward since I’d started at the BeltLine just 16 months prior as its Vice President of Economic Development. As the first major, collaborative initiative to come out of our economic development office, it was the catalytic moment we’d been waiting for.
A highlight from the remarks that day were from our mayor, Andre Dickens, who said small businesses are the backbone of our community and the heart of Atlanta’s economy. As a former small business owner himself, he understood the magnitude of the moment and what it represented for each of the entrepreneurs, but he also understood what it meant for our city.
As Atlanta continues to evolve and mature, the BeltLine, undoubtedly, is a catalyst in its growth. But we’ve long been at a crossroads on the role it stands to play.
Not just in its obvious role as an infrastructure project, but, as our astute, thoughtful leader Clyde Higgs has said, in its ability to be an economic development project driving change and economic transformation in our community.
The MarketPlace is a living, breathing illustration of a promise made by the BeltLine when it was conceptualized – to reknit the fabric of the city and provide opportunity to those who’d historically been underserved and under-prioritized.
The program reinforces the BeltLine’s work around stabilizing, preserving and creating affordable spaces for legacy, small, local, and Minority Business Enterprises.
It also dovetails with our larger efforts, specifically around housing affordability.
As one of the largest infrastructure projects in the country, we recognize our challenges, but we also believe we can create the blueprint for what an equitable, inclusive revitalization infrastructure project can look like.
With our CEO’s backing, my team and I have felt emboldened to do what others thought couldn’t be done: Co-create with the community, while prioritizing equity and accessibility. Even when our ideas, sometimes lofty (admittedly), have been met in rooms with awkward silence and skepticism, we’ve maintained our belief that fortune favors the bold.
The MarketPlace in almost every aspect, from our aggressive timing to our decision to pilot the program around Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs), was ambitious and brave, but we knew it was necessary. We needed to make the statement. To dismantle systemic inequities, you have to go against the grain.
And it has seemed to pay off. To start, more than 200 local businesses applied, signaling the need for this type of investment. And just recently, we watched the community show up to support Small Business Saturday at the MarketPlace businesses. Journeying along with these business owners has crystallized the critical nature of our work.
If a luxury high-rise can exist along the BeltLine, then why can’t the shop of a small business owner, especially one that has contributed to the fabric and culture of our city?
This has been a banner year, and we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished. While BeltLine MarketPlace has been the hallmark of our year, it’s just part of the story.
We began 2022 by hosting a series of events for Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs) to work on projects for the BeltLine. We co-hosted a roundtable of Black entrepreneurs and community leaders with Jay Bailey and the Russell Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
We also laid the groundwork for what we know will be an even bigger, more ambitious year in 2023. For example, we’re preparing to stand up our BeltLine Business Solutions Office, which will deliver tailored solutions to local and Minority Business Enterprises seeking to expand along our 22-mile corridor. We’re also looking forward to hosting our next cohort of MarketPlace entrepreneurs.
As I think about the importance of our economic development work, Terrence Albritton, owner of Grady Baby, one of the MarketPlace businesses, comes to mind.
On that hot July day at the MarketPlace ribbon cutting, Albritton talked about legacy. He runs the company with his wife and children, and he sees the BeltLine MarketPlace as a unique opportunity to create wealth and prosperity for his family now and for generations to come.
His words reminded me of our BeltLine mission. This isn’t just about now, it’s about the preservation of what existed before us and leaving something for those who will come behind us. We want to ensure the BeltLine is more than just a trail but a legacy project for our city and its people. We want to be able to say that Atlanta is better because of our work and our commitment.