Free space for businesses in rec center in exchange for mentoring kids

Councilman Isaiah Thomas speaks to some of the community members and organizations at the Athletic Recreation Center on Aug. 2, 2022.

Philadelphia this week launched a new program that will provide entrepreneurs and creatives with public space to grow their business — free of charge — in exchange for a commitment to mentor the city’s teenagers and children.

The program, funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is a novel approach to a public-private partnership and one that the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation leaders hope will benefit both budding entrepreneurs and the children who frequent recreation centers.

The entrepreneurial spirit could also inject new life into a handful of the city’s recreation centers, many of which saw funding slashed or staff members leave amid the upheaval of the pandemic.

“Times of crisis can also be times of great opportunity,” said Parks Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell, who announced the initiative Tuesday on the Athletic Recreation Center in North Philadelphia, where children were swimming and teenagers were shooting hoops. “We believe our recreation centers can do even more. We believe we can make space for big ideas to bust out of here.”

Entrepreneurs — who either have an existing business or an idea for one — will have until October to apply for space through the program, which is dubbed Making Space: Reimagining Recreation. Applicants are asked to describe not only their business and background, but also the value it will bring to the community and those who frequent the recreation centers.

An advisory committee of community members, elected officials, and small business owners will select 10 finalists, who will receive $1,500 in seed funding, as well as support to develop business coaching plans and proposals.

The finalists will then submit their proposals to the city and go through its typical contractor selection process. Four winners will be announced in the spring, and the city will spend between $25,000 and $75,000 of its grant funding to provide each winner with a fully outfitted space in a recreation center.

Lovell said the recreation centers have not yet been elected, but the Department hopes to pair entrepreneurs and creatives with recreation centers that have “underutilized space” and are in the communities where they want to anchor their business.

She said she was inspired by the Athletic Recreation Center, which has a finished basement that mostly sits empty. Lovell thought, what if that space was a recording studio where kids could learn about becoming a producer? Why can’t it be the space where a T-shirt maker with a vision becomes the next great clothing designer?

“It’s our young people that bring about change and innovation,” she said. “It’s important as our city evolves and changes that our city government evolve and change as well.”

» READ MORE: Philly will begin to open dozens of recreation centers on weekends by this fall

In administering the program, city officials are partnering with REC Philly, a Center City coworking space. Its cofounder, Will Toms, said Tuesday that while he’s proud to have built his business from North Philadelphia and opened a space downtown, “it’s not enough.”

“We know that talent is everywhere, we know that hard work is everywhere, we know that big ideas are everywhere,” he said. “But we also have to embrace the fact that we know that opportunity is not.”

At-large City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, who sits on the advisory committee, on Tuesday framed the initiative as a form of youth engagement and positive reinforcement at a time when the city is experiencing some of its highest rates of gun violence in generations, saying, “We never know how many lives we save with these prevention-based initiatives.”

And he implored young people to apply, saying if officials want to expand the program in the future using city dollars, they have to show that it works.

“We need you young people to invest. We need you to take a risk, we need you to start that LLC,” he said. “Because once you do and you become official, it gives us an opportunity to pour into you.”

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