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Fairfax County should invest in the economic mobility, well-being, and health of its historically marginalized and disadvantaged residents, a Pennsylvania-based developer told the Board of Supervisors’ Economic Advisory Commission on Feb. 16.

The goal is to maximize the return on investment in terms of social impact and society, said Leon Caldwell of Ujima Developers LLC, who spoke about economic development in Corridor 1 after a presentation.

Caldwell pointed to an idea he called “holistic, fair real estate development”.

“This is a concept to better rebuild,” he said. “How do we do this fairly while promoting talent?”

Ujima Developers LLC began work on the East Parkside project in West Philadelphia near the Philadelphia Zoo last fall. The project includes investments in affordable, age-appropriate housing and will include Honeysuckle Provisions, a food retail company.

The company will also convert an empty, two-story, 12,000-square-foot warehouse into a three-story “STEAM²IE Workspaces”. The acronym stands for science, technology, engineering, art, math, manufacturing, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

The facility offers professional training opportunities in welding, 3D printing, adaptive manufacturing, information technology and cybersecurity training, textile work and more, said Caldwell. There will also be initiatives to teach people how to do micro-farming and vertical farming in urban areas, he said.

Caldwell called the project a “makerspace model,” an urban, neighborhood-oriented strategy for economic mobility.

“It’s a classic makerspace, but it’s also a place for small businesses to incubate,” he said. “It’s the training piece, but also the introduction to the future of work.”

East Parkside will be accessible and walkable. The work area is just a 10 minute walk from the new residential and grocery store.

“The transport policy of any jurisdiction is really about freedom and liberation,” said Caldwell, referring to the need to reduce transport costs and time, especially for people with fewer economic resources.

The recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has been disproportionate, especially in terms of color communities, Caldwell said. Workers in low-skilled and low-income jobs also suffered more during the crisis, he said.

Initiatives like STEAM²IE Workspaces help create an equitable framework for nurturing diverse talent for the future of work, said Caldwell.

“If you can’t see it, it can’t be you,” he said. “In many cities and in many places there are still talents that can be activated.”

Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville), chairman of the Economic Advisory Commission, described Caldwell’s presentation as “excellent” and said the East Parkside project was “admirable”.

“I hope we can transfer this to other parts of the county,” agreed Supervisor Dalia Palchik (D-Providence), who raised the issue of capital access for minority companies.

Structural racism underpins some of these problems, but public-private partnerships could help address the matter, Caldwell said.

“It is really the mixed capital that is needed,” he said. “When the market for minority or historically disadvantaged companies is failing, the public sector can indeed play an important, critical role – be it in credit enhancement, seed funding, or whatever.”

Caldwell also advocated bringing a “big stick” to large corporations and financial institutions and asking why such funding errors occur.

“Access to capital is paramount for small businesses and startups,” said Esther Lee, president and CEO of Refraction, a McLean-based not-for-profit group that drives innovation and entrepreneurship.

Refraction and other organizations are considering holding “pitch” events where companies can seek funding from outside the region, she said.

“Northern Virginia lags behind other peers in terms of venture capital and funding,” she said.

Lee added that President Biden’s Better Back Down plan is to invest in a nationwide network of innovation centers.

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