Glenville CircleNorth helps Black-owned businesses survive and thrive

While the coronavirus was wrecking lives and the global economy, locally, creative efforts were underway to keep the shine on Glenville Circle North, one of the neighborhood’s newest prize assets.

Glenville CircleNorth. Contributed photo.

Glenville CircleNorth. Contributed photo.

While the coronavirus was wrecking lives and the global economy, locally, creative efforts were underway to keep the shine on Glenville Circle North, one of the neighborhood’s newest prize assets.

Within a month of the $15 million mixed use development’s grand opening ceremonies in January 2020, a nationwide shutdown brought everything to a halt.

This, just two years after Crain’s trumpeted Glenville Circle North as “rising to expectations.”

“I would still say we are meeting expectations with the prospect of being able to create equity, wealth and jobs in a community that has different social-economic needs than some of our other areas,” said outgoing Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, in response to what might have appeared to be a reverse of fortunes.

Fueling Jackson’s optimism is the creative way Glenville Circle North, the first project to come out of the mayor’s $25 million Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, was crafted. The centerpiece is the Glenville Circle North apartment building offering 63 one- and two-bedroom suites, over half of which are deemed “affordable,” including at least two Section 8 units.

Eric Foster holding down Black Box Fix, which has reopened for business. Contributed photo.

Eric Foster holding down Black Box Fix, which has reopened for business. Contributed photo.

GlenVillage, on the south end of the complex at East 105th St. and Ashbury Rd., offers 14,000 square feet of retail space occupied by six minority or female-owned businesses. At its heart is Black Box Fix, an eatery owned by veteran chef Eric Foster whose specialties include such eye-catching fare as a Black Lives Matter chicken sandwich. On the north side of the building is CLEworx, an airy workplace available for rent by residents and community members.

A principal CLEworx tenant is the business accelerator gener8tor, which has offices in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Madison, Wis., and its “gBeta” component focused on developing mostly minority- and female-owned, tech-savvy startups. The Finch Group real estate development firm, notable for its quarter-billion dollars’ worth of diverse types of investments in Cuyahoga County and Cleveland, owns Glenville Circle North, including CLEworx. The Cleveland Citywide Development Corporation, an arm of the city’s office of economic development, manages the property and CLE Consulting Firm is the operations manager.

When the pandemic hit, occupancy at the apartment building slid to as low as 30 percent. “Some of our foreign exchange students went home and couldn’t return, and some tenants needed rental assistance,” said leasing agent Natacha Sako.

Additionally, one business closed its doors, later replaced by a new jewelry store. Staffing shortages shut down Black Box Fix for six months, yet Foster was able to shift to online orders, supplementing his income catering for an area nursing home. GlenVillage is part of a “business incubator,” a success-driven concept to build a safety net for the minority-owned businesses who often fail due to lack of capital and strong business systems.

Other shops at GlenVillage include Cleveland Cold Brew, Living Rich, Pipe ‘N Hot Grill, Premier Barber Lounge, and Vitiman Kandie. According to Brianna Butler, program manager for the city’s department of economic development, Living Rich, a clothing brand that sells unisex streetwear apparel co-founded by Sharia Livingston and her daughter Sha’Miah Richardson, is the closest to transitioning out of the incubator.

Carolyn Smith of Famicos Foundation, a local community development corporation, at CleWorx. Contributed photo.

Carolyn Smith of Famicos Foundation, a local community development corporation, at CleWorx. Contributed photo.

The showcase businesses were selected from 150 entrepreneurs who competed in a “Shark Tank”-style competition before a panel of judges. Plans call for the new enterprises to grow and develop their business acumen using GlenVillage as their physical location. After two years, the city will assist owners in finding permanent locations for their small businesses.

“We are trying to remove the barriers for failure, “said Butler. “Through partners such as JumpStart, Cleveland Citywide Development, and the Urban League of Greater Cleveland, we provide the owners with technical assistance to help them become sustainable.”

For pandemic protection, the city created a $70,000 Emergency Working Capital Fund to aid GlenVillage businesses with working capital financial strains brought on by the pandemic.

For its part, gener8tor partner Abby Kursel said the gBETA accelerator that makes a network of online, multi-disciplined mentors across the country, including Case Western Reserve economic professor Scott Shane’s Comeback Capital firm, available to the new tech companies under its wing, “actually thrived during the pandemic because of the online nature of our model.”

Offering seasonal, seven-week cohort training sessions comprised of mostly minority- and female-owned high-growth startups, gBETA went virtual and thereby completed three rounds of training for 14 early-stage companies that have created 69 jobs and attracted $5.9 million in investments

David Boone of BlendEd outside of GlenVillage. Contributed photo.

David Boone of BlendEd outside of GlenVillage. Contributed photo.

BlendEd, an online course authoring platform for college professors, gives a snapshot of how a gBeta cohort began to scale up during the pandemic. David Boone, the company’s co-founder, is a 27-year-old Harvard graduate who previously worked for Microsoft. During the height of the pandemic, he able to raise more than $300,000 in investments, landed Lorain Community College (LCC) as a client, and is close to arranging an even bigger deal with a 70,000-student technical college in North Carolina.    

Aside from this, encouraging signs that Glenville Circle North is trending toward meeting the lofty expectations of what Jackson’s revitalization initiative intended to accomplish, is seen in the increased GlenVillage foot traffic, rental occupancy nearing capacity, and gBeta’s progress growing new minority-owned businesses. During the month of June of this year, Glenville Circle North offered one month of rent-free living. The program ended June 30. At the beginning of August, 60 units were occupied and the remaining three have been rented out with scheduled move in dates.

Developer Wes Finch said Glenville Circle North has become a catalyst for development in Glenville, helping to spur additional housing, retail and commercial development in the area, including new affordable and market-rate housing and commercial development. “More and more Glenville is shaping up to be the new spot for investment,” he said.

According to a report by NBC News, “More than 40 percent of Black-owned businesses shut down by April of last year, compared with a 17 percent decline among white-owned businesses. And while around 75 percent of Black-owned small businesses saw upticks in the two months after George Floyd’s death and subsequent national attention to issues around discrimination and police brutality, sales at many Black-owned businesses soon after plummeted back to their pre-Covid-19 rates, according to a survey by the Black Chamber of Commerce. Even if you shelf the pandemic’s effect on Black-owned businesses, eight out of 10 fail within the first 18 months.”

To learn more about Glenville Circle North, which is located at E. 105th St. and Ashbury Rd., visit or call 866/721-7612. To learn more about the Black-owned businesses at GlenVillage visit

Ronald Kisner is a retired administrator from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. He is the former West Coast Bureau Chief of Jet/Ebony magazines and CEO/Creative Director of TDA Group, Inc., a local public relations/advertising firm. His freelance writing has appeared in GQ, Cleveland Magazine, and the SHAD Connection.

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