The Roxbury Innovation Center opened Monday in Dudley Square to encourage greater access and opportunity for people interested in starting new business ventures.
The goal for the center, housed in the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building, is to give people the tools and skills needed to create new businesses and jobs, by hosting workshops, office hours, classes and other programs, and offering the workspace for other organizations and groups to do the same.
A critical objective of the center is to address and fix the wealth gap in the city of Boston, said Boston City Councilor Tito Jackson, who represents Roxbury.
“There are amazing people there, and so the objective really is to take the organic talent that is there and really give that talent the support needed to take it to the next level,” he said.
At 16.8 percent, Roxbury has one of the highest unemployment rates of Boston’s neighborhoods, only eclipsed by Mattapan with 17.3 percent, according to a 2014 report by the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
Boston’s black families also have an average median total value of assets of only $700, while the city’s white families have over $250 thousand, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s The Color of Wealth in Boston report. Total value of assets refers to the total value of the money these people have in bank accounts, stocks, as well as what they have for retirement, in vehicle and home equity, and any other assets
This data provides a look at the economic depravity of heavily minority-populated areas like Roxbury. By offering opportunities for residents to gain skills needed to open new businesses, the center is in turn aiding in job creation, which increases the total value of assets for those residents.
Roxbury has a history of hard times, Jackson said. The 1987 removal of the elevated Orange Line in the Washington Street area hurt many businesses.
“That decimated many businesses in the community, but there were still businesses who stayed in business and new businesses that opened,” he said. “Innovation means resilience – people who have been able to keep their businesses open in some of the most difficult economic times.”
The Roxbury Innovation Center has three rooms of different configurations within more than 3 thousand square feet of workshop space, said Kevin Wiant, executive director of Venture Café Foundation, which was chosen by the City of Boston to run and operate the center. The focus for the center is on using the skills of the local community, and teaching skills to those in need, to create new businesses.
Venture Café is not new to the Boston’s innovation efforts. It also hosts regular Thursday night programs in Kendall Square and runs District Hall, another innovation center in Boston’s Innovation District.
The center will not only focus on technology, Wiant said, but will also work with food, music, art and other types of businesses.
The center is housed in the same building as the Boston Public Schools headquarters, at 2300 Washington Street. Both institutions have been collaborating even before the center opened to find ways to incorporate the center into the school system’s programs and classes. It will offer programs for students, teachers and even parents.
“The more that we involve the community, the better the program is going to be and the easier it’s going to be to attract students,” said Rory Cuddyer, start-up manager for the City of Boston. “If we can get these students excited and get the message across that they are going to gain skills that are going to be beneficial in the long-run…that can go a long way.”
The Roxbury Innovation Center is the product Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s efforts to expand the innovation economy outside the Seaport District and Downtown Boston, Cuddyer said.
“The wider we can spread that net of innovation around the city, it’s only going to help,” he said.
The center is partnered with SkyLab Boston to run education and training programs, as well as other organizations, such as Future Boston Alliance and Discover Roxbury, which works to overcome racial and social stereotypes in the community and promote economic development.
Kim Brown, 33, a Roxbury resident and volunteer for Discover Roxbury, said this innovation center will provide students and families the resources that they can no longer find at other local institutions.
“When it comes to that [access to resources and space] you have a lot of people feeling that Roxbury is kind of waning,” she said Saturday at Roxbury Open Studios, an art exhibit at the center. “There’s only so much schoolteachers and administrators can do. I think that with this center being housed here, that’s really going to reinforce a lot of the community activism.”
Another long-time resident and local artist, Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, 32, is hopeful but remains cautious about the center’s influence on the neighborhood.
“If the space is used in a way to really engage residents and help to sustain them, instead of involuntarily displacing them, because it’s already happened through construction, then it’s going to be an amazing space,” she said.
This article was originally published in Boston University News Service on October 3, 2015.