By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
After ten years in the making Africatown, a Seattle based nonprofit organization, is set to open the William Grose Center for Cultural Innovation (WGCC). Located at the old Firehouse Station 6 on the southwest corner of 23rd Avenue and Yesler St. in the Central District of Seattle, the historic landmark has been transformed into a hub to develop Black genius and creativity in entrepreneurship and technology.
Named in honor of Seattle’s second Black resident, WGCC will honor the legacy of the wealthiest nineteenth-century member of Seattle’s Black community. Grose’s home, which was located along the former outskirts of town on East Madison Street, eventually became the center of Seattle’s Black middle class at the time.
“[William Grose] was a community builder, entrepreneur, real estate developer, hotelier in that spirit but also making space for others,” says Wyking Garrett, President and CEO of Africatown Community Land Trust. “He was the man that bought the 12 acres of land from Henry Yesler and established the Central District as a settling place for Black families.”
According to Garrett, the WGCC is designed to enhance opportunities for the Black community to invest in technology, creatives and entrepreneurship and develop our young people to utilize their gifts and talents in these fields. By establishing relationships with the region’s tech and development industries, WGCC looks to rejuvenate the innate genius and creativity of the Black community and apply that growth and innovation to the overall well-being of the community at-large.
“We see that the WGCC will be a place to make space for others to develop, grow and build things in the community,” says Garrett. “The programming will be active this fall for example there will be support for entrepreneurs, Black-owned businesses to launch, grow and scale, and there will be tech, innovation and computer science, game development, coding for young people, virtual reality, and lastly a creative economy pipeline which will focus on creative, particularly around media, video and film production.”
Garrett, who has been working on the project since 2012, says that the preservation of the old firehouse is an important piece of history and culture of the Central Area.
“Initially the city proposed putting a Seattle Police East Precinct next to the fire station, and my father and the late Isiah Edwards led a community movement to say that we don’t need a police station in the community, but a positive institution,” says Garrett. “A positive institution that will prevent even that mindset from developing and gives our young people a sense of pride and an opportunity to develop.”
“In 2012, the city put out a request for proposal (RFP) for the reuse of the fire station project and we put in a proposal to really extend the work that had started earlier for a youth program,” he added. “The proposal was to create an innovation hub to connect our genius, our innovation, our entrepreneurial spirit.”
In 2016, the project was approved by the Seattle City Council as a part of their Equitable Development Initiatives Projects. However, between 2016 to 2020 the project languished in bureaucracy. Not long after the uprising and response to the death of George Floyd and others wrongful deaths in the country, Jenny Durkan, who was mayor of Seattle at the time, announced that the city was moving forward with the proposal for Africatown to acquire the space to house The William Gross Center for Cultural Innovation.
Taking on such endeavors has its challenges, and securing land and/or properties is not an easy task and Africatown’s attempt to develop land was not without its own set of challenges.
Muammar Hermanstyne, a developer and consultant with Africatown and who was instrumental in securing the deal with city, says that there were many pitfalls along the way, but he is optimistic and energized about the development and its future.
“We have the building on a 99-year lease,” says Hermanstyne. “We took the pathway of leasing because for me the lease was the path of least resistance in terms of getting the property under site control. One of the biggest challenges was money of course. As you know Africatown is a small organization where there is a reliance on public funds so there were some bureaucratic challenges as well as industry challenges of getting from A to B in the course of development.
Despite the challenges, Hermanstyne says the completion of the project sends a clear message if we, as a community, put our minds, energy and effort collectively into the causes that are important and positively impact the well-being of our community, we can take a major step towards shortening the gaps Black people are faced with on a daily basis.
“This was challenging,” says Hermanstyne. “I think this started as a community process, but a message to the community should be that as long as they put their minds behind something they want to get, they can get it.”
“It is important that the community begin to think in terms of forwarding and supporting those with entrepreneurial spirits, our creatives, people who think differently and how are we supporting and helping them to move forward and I believe the efforts of Africatown and other likeminded organizations and people are setting that example,” added Hermanstyne.
A ribbon cutting ceremony for the William Grose Center for Cultural Innovation will take place this Fri., Sept. 16 at 4:00pm.