Hartford’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities (SC2) Challenge winners were announced at the end of May 2015. The SC2 Challenge is a key element of the SC2 Initiative, which strives to enhance and support U.S. cities’ economic development.
The SC2 Challenge was designed to help cities benefit from cutting-edge business concepts for creating economic development plans and putting them into action. Winning teams shared a total of $800,000 of award money funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
Made at Swift earned a second place $100,000 award for its plan to reuse the Swift Factory as an “economic anchor” for the City of Hartford through food and entrepreneurship. The Made at Swift team includes four non-profit organizations:
- Billings Forge Community Works, which founded a food-based social enterprise and provides culinary job training
- Community Solutions, which is leading a comprehensive community development strategy in Northeast Hartford
- Hartford Food System, a provider of food security programming and advocacy in Hartford
- reSET, which is committed to developing the social entrepreneurship sector in Connecticut.
Innovation Destination: Hartford met with Gina Muslim, Director of the Northeast Hartford Partnership of Community Solutions, to talk about how the Made at Swift team became involved with the SC2 Challenge and the team’s plans to strengthen economic development in the Hartford area.
Watch “Good Food is Good Business: Made at Swift”
IDH: Tell us about the concept for Made at Swift.
MUSLIM: Community Solutions started with an urban farm here five growing seasons ago. There is a real need for food security and fresh food availability, and we were thinking about how to utilize the Swift Factory as a place where fresh food can improve health, provide jobs and be made available to the community often in good quality at fair prices.
We looked around at the city and realized that many of the organizations and strengths we needed were here in Hartford but hadn’t been knit together in that way, so Community Solutions brought those teams together from Billings Forge, Hartford Food Systems and reSET to work on a plan for a food-centric component at the Swift Factory.
IDH: Can you tell us more about the plan?
MUSLIM: Community Solutions already has an outdoor growing initiative. We would love to have a commercial kitchen that’s focused on contract meals that would provide something like Meals on Wheels or other types of big catering. That would create a needed space for expanding and a needed space for job training, which is not currently available at Billings Forge. They don’t have the capacity to do that. They have a restaurant kitchen and they have a small catering kitchen, but they don’t have something big enough to do contract meals. Something like that would provide employment and also job training for culinary arts.
Then we looked at learning and shared kitchens that would provide cooking classes for the community, which would address how to use vegetables that are being picked and delivered here. We also looked at providing different types of courses that would allow people to think about food as micro entrepreneurship right here at the site. That would happen in the learning kitchen and there would be one or a series of incubator kitchens for people to try things out.
IDH: Are these people who want to be restauranteurs?
MUSLIM: Restauranteurs or people who want to sell at farmers markets. A lot of culinary food making and distribution is happening anyway through home kitchens and being distributed. It isn’t regulated and it doesn’t have the structure that a real business would have.
We’re hoping to couple reSET’s accelerator training program with some of these folks who have already started a food-based business to get them into a licensed kitchen and get them business skills they need to grow their business so it turns from a small underground mom-and-pop thing into a viable catering business or a business that sells products in local stores. However we can support that in this community—which sees a more than 20% unemployment rate—is a big deal and will have a positive impact on the community around food.
So that was the genesis. With our winnings from SC2, we really think we’ll be able to achieve this overall vision.
We also work with Urbane Development, a consulting firm that’s working in places like Detroit with emerging food industries. They are helping us think about the business case and determine the strengths and weaknesses of this particular site. SC2 gave us the ability to add that to our work to make it more viable as we prepare to renovate the Swift Factory space.
IDH: How did you come to be involved with all of this?
MUSLIM: I’ve had a lot of experience working on big development projects on the financing side, primarily at healthcare institutions and children’s museums, which is an interesting mix. When I came to Hartford I was still working in those fields and met Roseanne Haggerty, who launched Community Solutions in 2011. When the Director job became open I saw it as an opportunity to put my skills in partnership development, financing and then “big-vision building” to work. Community Solutions uses a lot of innovative approaches, it’s been a lot of fun every day.
IDH: How did the concept for the Made at Swift SC2 to plan come to be?
MUSLIM: When Community Solutions moved to Love Lane in Hartford the first thing we did was to survey the community. We asked more than 500 community members what was important to them and what they thought the needs of the community were because we wanted it to be reflected in this development project.
IDH: That makes sense. And what did you find out?
MUSLIM: The three big things were: safety, youth engagement and jobs. Those have been our guiding lights. We added one to that list after we looked at the community health equity report and realized that the health in this neighborhood specifically was the worst in the city of Hartford. This neighborhood had the most disparity in terms of how long you live and the most disparity in terms of chronic disease, heart disease and diabetes. This was really Ground Zero in terms of disparity between folks who live here and folks who live elsewhere, where the norm would be considered.
We decided to create a space that has a jobs lens, because that’s what people need; a health lens, because that seems to be something that, once you get those basic needs set, is so important; and then, by virtue of doing this, we hope that this neighborhood will become a safer place and that there will be opportunities for youth engagement. We think of those things in all of our work.
In conversations with the city. We were alerted to the SC2 Challenge and we saw an opportunity to rally our local leaders in the food space and put them to work around that specific programming area.
IDH: How are these local leaders working to put the plan in place?
MUSLIM: It was great to bring all these experts in the different sectors into a room. Again, we had an idea and it was kind of a big swath of the building that said food and commercial kitchen, and that was it. So through this process we were able to dig deeper into the programming, find out how it would work and determine the feasibility of the different components.
Folks on our team include Martha Page, Executive Director of Hartford Food System, who has been involved in the food policy in the state for decades and Cary Wheaton, Executive Director of Billings Forge, who has been in the restaurant industry for a very long time. Obviously having reSET, which really understands the social startup space, helped give us a very deep programming ability to be able to shape this plan into something viable.
IDH: How does Made at Swift plan to use the SC2 award money?
MUSLIM: That’s a great question. When all of the partners came into this it was a handshake agreement. Community Solutions kind of brought the team together. We all made a commitment and decided that if we won Phase I of the SC2 competition we were all going to reinvest the award money back into Phase II.
Bear in mind all these partners are non-profits, so I appreciated that everyone had that commitment to the project. None of them own the Swift building, but they really wanted to see this vision.
Winnings from Phase I were completely invested back into the project. We used the funds to bring in Urbane Development, update our video and send team members on site to examine what was happening in the space and in the region. That made our proposal that much better because we took the time to do the research and to bring the best that we could to the project.
We then went into Phase II, and again I have to say how fantastic our partners were in committing that any awards from Phase II would also be used to further explore the feasibility of this site.
Right now Cary is looking at contract work, Martha is looking at intensifying urban farming here and determining how we can best utilize the land and reSET is doing focus groups that are particularly focused on the food sector. The food sector has always been a large group for them, but now they’re seeing how that niche could be played out, specifically to serve what we’re trying to do with Made at Swift.
As for Community Solutions, we have put the award money into further development of the building site—talking to the architects to find out how things work and how to make a green and multi-use commercial kitchen. We’re trying to make it a space that will serve the community and bring jobs, job training and health to the community.
IDH: Where do you see the future of this plan in the next two to five years?
MUSLIM: We’re thrilled that this project was chosen to be part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Promise Zones, which were just designated this past winter. The Swift Factory was named as the economic development vertical lead on that initiative.
We have been marching down with architectural drawings. We just finished a roof replacement with funding from the state. We have a number of letters of intent signed for space because obviously the kitchen is part of that.
We’re also looking at having a library component that would create job training literacy, kind of a 21st-century library, so not as many books but the bigger vision of libraries. There is also a healthcare delivery space we’re exploring with some of our partners including Cigna the University of Connecticut and others.
We’re excited to have a building that is what I call the “physical manifestation of our belief in the work.” We are hoping to secure our financing for the end of the year and then flip into construction and the information technology (IT) systems, which will take about 16 to 18 months, and then the space will be fit out with our partners.
I’ll also add that the city of Hartford and Stephen Cole, Hartford’s Director of Economic Development Division, Department of Development Services, who facilitated the Hartford SC2 Challenge competition have been great about making the commitment to follow the SC2 winners’ economic development plans to their logical conclusions, because we think Hartford is a great place for the federal government to invest since they saw such potential in everyone’s work.
IDH: What you feel is the best thing about living or working in the greater Hartford area?
MUSLIM: I admit when we first came to Love Lane I was concerned that everyone was going to be apathetic and not going to care. When Community Solutions became a landowner here it was the turning point because the community saw us as not just as an organization that was coming in and providing services, but as a landowner that cares about what happens here, is invested in this neighborhood and the surrounding neighborhoods, and invested in improvement. We have wonderful relationships with our neighbors; they’re really respectful.
What strikes me about Hartford is that there such great resources here. I think the SC2 Challenge gave people the ability to show how they can be creative and how they can harness the resources to push boundaries and move things forward. I definitely see over the last few years that feeling has intensified and I think we’re finally seeing a lot of projects move forward.