Dominic Watson, executive director of The Springfield Project, has started working to redevelop, revitalize and uplift the Southtown neighborhood since securing funding earlier this year to purchase the building at 1100 South Grand Ave. East.
The Springfield City Council allocated $179,235 from a Community Development Block Grant to purchase the former beauty supply store at the southeast corner of 11th Street and South Grand Avenue East, with the goal of opening a social innovation center focused on minority entrepreneurs.
In the meantime, The Springfield Project is hosting community pop-ups, summer youth programming and small business support services. Amid bare rooms and floors sectioned off with masking tape, there is a beam of light shining inside. Watson recently launched community pop-ups, allowing organizations to utilize the space until the build-out is complete.
"It's really a melting pot of resources that traditionally aren't targeting our communities – the Black and Brown community – and aren't necessarily centralized in areas that we reside in," said Watson.
The first pop-up, a weekly community satellite location sponsored by Lincoln Library, is open for anyone to check out books, obtain or renew library cards and connect to virtual resources every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
The Springfield Project has been in existence since 1996. Watson assumed leadership of the organization in September 2021 and also serves as president of the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce.
TSP's summer youth employment and empowerment program, now in its 13th year, will start in July.
Watson said the eight-week program has served 600 middle and high school students who receive paid on-the-job training at minimum wage, professional development training and access to employers.
"This program is essentially a steppingstone to employment opportunities that they can acquire on their own," said Watson.
The program has been primarily funded by the Community Foundation for the Land of Lincoln and other community partners. Last year, Watson partnered with the Springfield Sangamon Growth Alliance, the Springfield Airport Authority and Sangamon County State's Attorney Dan Wright's office.
"It's an empowerment opportunity," said Watson, "So oftentimes, what we've come to understand is not just Black and Brown youth – but underserved, or those who are underrepresented – lack access to resources that those who are represented have."
Watson plans to expand into a year-round model to create a path to long-term employment. "The goal is not just to focus on one particular area, but providing skills to increase employability."
Set to launch this fall, the Community Access Project (CAP) 1908 is a comprehensive social innovation center. Using a co-working model, the center will house shared offices, equipment, leadership development and essential business services for a nominal fee.
"There will be some built-in value, such as access to programs and training that are built around incubating businesses and accelerating them," said Watson.
By adding an atrium to connect to the adjoining building, Watson said he is creating a business complex that will also include the former Southtown movie theater and 20,000 square feet of space behind the buildings.
"We want to be able to influence that entire block, whether it's working with developers or actually taking the lead," said Watson. "We're coming up with a comprehensive strategy to address a lot of the challenges for those who are seeking employment, or those who are looking to further their career."
Watson said programming partnerships with University of Illinois Springfield and Innovate Springfield are also in the works. "We're always looking for additional partners that may be interested in coming in and providing various services to the community that we're trying to serve."
Jacqualine Simone Jarju moved to Springfield to pursue a Master of Arts degree in Public Affairs Reporting at University of Illinois Springfield. She has a professional background in public and community affairs journalism, program development and social justice.