A new view from the Hilltop: Developers create a vision of renaissance at 14th and MLK

Spend some time with Sharon P. Freeman, and you’ll soon witness what it means to be a resourceful businessperson. Freeman is the executive director of Allen Renaissance, a non-profit organization formed by the Allen African Methodist Episcopal church at 12th and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, and designed to transform a three-block area of the Hilltop neighborhood.

The goal? Develop church-owned property to create a $1.5 million community center — the Hilltop Renaissance Project — that will provide job-skills training, entrepreneurial and small-business resources, health services, and a bakery and restaurant with liveable-wage jobs to residents of the Hilltop neighborhood.

An ambitious plan, no doubt. An even greater challenge, says Freeman, because of her self-described limited experience in business development.

Yet what Freeman may lack in development experience, she more than makes up for in resourcefulness.

“I had never written a grant before,” says Freeman, who was hired by the church in November 2003 to develop the project — a job lately defined by her ability to write grants and raise funds. “But I thought, ‘What the heck? I can do this. I can just learn as I go.’”

She wrote her first federal grant last year and was awarded $50,000 for planning and technical assistance. She also received a $10,000 Impact Capital grant to develop a business plan. And just this month, Freeman learned she received a city-related community block grant for more than $100,000, as well as a sizable grant from the Northwest Leadership Foundation Four City Demonstration Project. She is currently applying for a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Division.

“I’ve actually had success at writing grants since I started this project,” says Freeman, more surprised than boastful. “I’m feeling a little bit more confident about it, though not overly confident.”

She has also been resourceful in garnering community support for the project. Many people with whom she has discussed the project have come forward to help out in some way.

Case in point: Morris McCollum. Earlier this month, when Freeman described the project to McCollum, who is chairman of the Upper Tacoma Business Association and owner of the Mr. Mac clothing store, she mentioned she was aware of a Puget Sound Costco store that would soon close. She wondered what would happen to all the store’s bakery equipment left behind. McCollum explained that he was a friend and former business partner of Jeffrey Brotman, Costco’s founder. McCollum contacted Brotman, who in turn contacted Freeman. Freeman made an appointment to look at the equipment — which included a walk-in freezer and refrigerator, an oven, as well as countless baking supplies. She estimated its worth at approximately $15,000 dollars, and wasn’t sure how she would find the money to pay for the equipment.

Two weeks ago, she received a phone call from one of Brotman’s associates. The equipment would be donated to Allen Renaissance, and the caller wanted to know which equipment Freeman would like. “I said, ‘I could make it real simple,’” Freeman recalls, still thrilled by the news. “‘There was nothing I did not want. Anything you don’t want, just send it to me.’”

The Hilltop Renaissance Project dates back to the late-1990s, when the church wanted to make some concerted efforts to reach out to the community. Committees were formed to target neighborhood concerns such as senior housing, juvenile delinquency, and shortfalls in education and job training. The committees formed a non-profit organization to address these issues, but very little activity resulted, according to Freeman. In November 2002, Freeman learned about a project in Los Angeles called the First African Methodist Episcopal Renaissance (or “FAME Renaissance”) — a program for economic and community development that serves people of color and the communities in which they live by partnering with the public and private sectors for community improvement.

“I went down to L.A. and looked at their program,” says Freeman. “It was amazing. It took me that one trip, a few days down there talking to their director, to decide we could do this. When I came back to Tacoma, I was very excited. I thought we could do something similar, maybe not on such a grand scale. But I thought we could do something in Tacoma where businesses help the community and the church.”

Freeman quit her job as a counselor and was hired full-time in January 2003 to lead the charge in developing the Hilltop Renaissance Project. “I started really from scratch,” she adds. “No phone, no office, nothing.”

Today, Freeman operates out of the Allen Renaissance office at 13th and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way. For the most part, she has kept a low profile — networking quietly within the business community (she teamed up with the World Trade Center Tacoma to develop a Web site), writing grants, and researching every aspect of opening a small-business and community center. An announcement two weeks ago that Allen Renaissance had received a community block grant was the first time that Freeman and the Hilltop Renaissance Project were thrust into the spotlight.

“I’ve stayed so busy over the last couple years,” she says. “I haven’t had time to really get out there. I have been working under the radar. I don’t believe in running around and tooting my horn. I just get in there and try to get the job done. What good would it serve me to get out here and say, ‘I’m doing all this stuff,’ and then nothing happens?”

Freeman has approached the project with ideas that set it apart from other community centers.

First, the concept for the project stems directly from community input and need. “I want to tailor-make this project for our community, rather than build something and hope people will come,” she explains. “Let’s see what the community wants first, and then build it.”

What the community wants foremost, says Freeman, are liveable-wage jobs and health insurance. That’s the project’s second interesting aspect. When completed, the bakery and restaurant will employee 20 people and provide liveable-wage incomes, as well as healthcare and childcare resources. Freeman admits that doing so will mean that most of the project’s expenses will be consumed by personnel costs. “But if I have a job that’s paying me well, and I have access to medical benefits,” she says, “then it’s unconscionable to have employees work here without the same thing. I can’t do it. I won’t do it. It’s not a guilt trip. We’re all human beings.”

Third, Freeman is determined to see the Hilltop Renaissance Project rely less on grants and more on direct revenue, through its bakery and restaurant, to fund itself. “If we can generate our own income,” she says, “then we won’t be as reliant on grants. We still might need some help from time to time, but not as much. That means more grant money would be available to other organizations.”

One plan is to produce goods for businesses that want to increase their client base. For example, an East Coast bakery interested in releasing its products in the Pacific Northwest could work with the Hilltop Renaissance Project bakery to produce those goods. Freeman also would like to see the project develop its own line of products to be sold in stores. Catering for business events is also a goal.

The project will also have resources for small-business entrepreneurs. “I want to create a place for an entrepreneur who can’t afford an office space,” she explains. “We could provide space for a very nominal fee. It’s difficult being an entrepreneur if you’re poor or don’t have a stellar track record. We can create an incubator environment that gives the entrepreneur an office address, telephone, computer — all those kinds of things. We can reach out to people who really need that hand.”

Additionally, the job- and life-skills components of the project are essential, according to Freeman, who argues that it simply isn’t enough to provide jobs. “What we’re going to do is get people acclimated to the idea of the world of work,” she explains. “You’re looking at a population that perhaps has not had long-term gainful employment. What I’m trying to do is put in things that eliminate barriers to being employed.” For example, what does an employee do with his or her child when he or she has to be to work at 4:00 a.m. and the buses aren’t running? Freeman says she is working on an idea to provide transportation for employees on a short-term basis. “Once you have disposable income, you can build in a car payment,” she adds. “But let’s get people used to getting up in the morning and getting to work. You can’t tell me you can’t be to work if I’m at your door honking the horn. Or there’s no childcare — sorry, I got that lined up.”

If Allen Renaissance receives the $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Division, Freeman hopes to complete the project this fall. The church already owns the property and the building that will house the project.

“The thing I like about this project is that it’s very do-able and do-able now,” says Freeman.