Grantee Spotlight:  North Hill Community Development Corporation

Burton D. Morgan Foundation began providing grants to North Hill Community Development Corporation (NHCDC) in 2020 to support entrepreneurial activity among the burgeoning immigrant population in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. The organization’s mission is to unite people, places, and programs in stimulating a robust and creative economy in North Hill, while anchoring a flourishing intercultural community that celebrates its vibrant diversity.

We recently met with Executive Director Justin Chenault to chat about NHCDC and learn more about what’s working well, what is challenging, and what the organization is focusing on over the next year.

Foundation:  Justin, how did your organization come to be and how has it since evolved?

Justin:  North Hill CDC was founded in 2017 with the support of the Knight Foundation and local institutions to help community organizers reimagine what the neighborhood could be. Since its inception, NHCDC has been focused on highlighting the strengths of the community and understanding how to overcome the challenges that post-industrial Rust Belt cities all have. North Hill CDC is one of the most socioeconomically mixed and racially diverse neighborhoods in the nation. As Akron's International District, economic development in the neighborhood means understanding the needs of new Americans and Americans born, equally. We started with the Exchange House, an International hostel and community hub, and have grown, activating six public spaces throughout North Hill. These spaces are designed to holistically address the needs of our community, entrepreneurs and artists to create pathways for economic and personal success.

Foundation:  Tell us about NHCDC’s main initiatives and how they are helping the community?

Justin:  We believe that everyone's culture and traditions have value and wanted to be a part of creating authentic cultural experiences in North Hill. This is seen two ways through our NoHi Culinary Art Entrepreneur commercial kitchen incubator program and our Maker to Market Pipeline program.

NoHi is a commercial kitchen incubator program focused on providing Culinary Art Entrepreneurs with training, technical assistance and real-time experience to test and develop their food concepts, with the goal of opening their own restaurant, food truck or catering business.

The Maker to Market pipeline is a program focused on Women Entrepreneurs, Artisans, Makers and Creators. This program is housed at the Maker House, a women's Empowerment Center that provides women access to a makerspace, programming and real-time experience to grow and appropriately scale their business.

Foundation:  What are some of the biggest challenges facing your organization?

Justin:  The biggest challenge that North Hill CDC faces is not having the physical infrastructure to support growing businesses in the International District. Another challenge that our organization faces is how to address the cross-cultural divide. We have to ensure that our programming meets the needs of both our immigrant community and our American born community equally. When we talk about programming and arts and cultural events, we ensure that the organizations, community leaders and residents are in the room collaborating together.

Foundation:  What has come as a surprise to you since assuming the leadership of NHCDC?

Justin:  If I'm being honest, working in such a diverse setting, nothing much surprises me. When you work in the community you have to be flexible, you have to understand that you're going to walk into situations with no immediate solution. That is the beauty of community development work. I love the unpredictable. I love working with our residents and our neighbors.

Foundation:  Tell us how you collaborate with others in the community to bring impactful programming to immigrant entrepreneurs

Justin:  The foundation of our work is based in removing barriers for our community. This is the same for those impacted by urban renewal and redlining and those immigrating into the United States. We have been successful partnering with leading organizations in Akron to augment their curriculum, hire and train facilitators, and host their programming in North Hill. This strategy accomplishes several objectives, eliminating any language barrier, eliminating transportation barriers and naturally creates a pathway for those leading organizations to have a presence in the neighborhood. These partnerships also allow our North Hill residents to become familiar with organizations outside of North Hill and continue to grow and have a relationship with other parts of Akron.

Foundation:  What does success look like for your organization? What do you need to succeed?

Justin:  Success in North Hill looks like fully activated commercial corridors on both Howard Street and Main Street in the great Street District of Temple Square.

Foundation:  Describe your organization’s accomplishment/success that makes you the proudest?

Justin:  The success of NoHi, a commercial incubator, has completely blown me away. Seeing culinary art entrepreneurs be able to pursue their goals, see results, and be supported by residents, leading organizations and the City of Akron is absolutely amazing. Out of the 86 entrepreneurs that have gone through our program, five have opened up their own brick and mortar in the city of Akron, three have bought their own food truck and dozens have seen an increase in catering opportunities. 

Foundation:  What’s next for NHCDC? Anything exciting coming up in 2023?

Justin:  On May 5th, Cinco de Mayo, we will open up akron's first food truck park. We are excited to work specifically with food truck entrepreneurs and begin to understand some of the challenges and barriers they face trying to grow their food business. In the summer of 2023 we will also unveil Howard Street Heritage Courtyard, allowing us to continue to work with artists in NEO. This will be Akron's first interchangeable mural wall. Look for some great programming, cultural festivals and celebrations throughout the year as we believe tourism empowers communities.