Marquas Ashworth doesn’t plan to break ground on his Center @ Sixth project until spring, but he’s already sending two businesses through the incubator program.
Once completed, the building at 1714 Sixth Ave. will house a non-profit organization that helps black and brown entrepreneurs build their businesses with the help of professionals in the field such as lawyers, accountants and planners.
To help test the concept, he worked with Nadia La Baker and Jambo African Cuisine, helping both launch stands at the downtown Des Moines farmers market. Ashworth said the concept seems to be working, and the two owners regularly sell out their products every Saturday.
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“It’s been great watching it work,” he said, adding, “It’s more fun than making money, making music, making whiskey.” Beyond developing Center @ Sixth, Ashworth is a hip-hop artist, producer and founder of Media Fresh Records and creator of Ziyad Rye small batch whiskey.
To get the business off the ground, Center @ Sixth, in partnership with Principal Financial Group and EMC Insurance Cos., covered the upfront cost of necessities like pop-up tents, cash registers, tables and signs — “everything these businesses need to slide and start making money,” Ashworth said. It also pays their farmers market fees, which can be more than $1,000, said Aminatha Mkama, owner of Jambo African Cuisine.
“It’s helped me a lot, especially since I’m starting out, of course,” she said. “I’m going to have to buy all this stuff while I’m still heavily invested in this business.”
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Mkama sells East African cuisine, mostly from Tanzania, where he hails from. The main dish is rice with coconut cream, filled with chicken, beans and vegetables.
She said she’s not sure Iowans will embrace her cuisine — especially at 7 a.m. — but that the customer base she’s built as a caterer and at festivals has grown tremendously since she started just a month ago. The market last week was slow because of the Iowa State Fair, she said, but she was down to just four servings by the time the market closed.
“I’m so blessed,” Mkama said. “We have a lot of customers that we met from the festivals, so I see them almost every Saturday. They come to get their lunch, their dinner.”
Ashworth said Nadia La Baker, which launched a few weeks earlier, was in the same position. Owner Nadia Ahisou, a French-style home baker of croissants, baguettes and other pastries, has already been able to upgrade her equipment and is looking for a storefront, he said. could not be reached for comment.
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Meanwhile, Ashworth is preparing to break ground on the four-story, $10 million complex in the spring. The first floor will feature three anchor tenants — a yet-to-be-announced local cafe and restaurant, as well as a tasting room for Ashworth’s Ziyad Rye, featuring new and favorite products plus guest drinks from other black and brown whiskey producers.
Between the anchors will be 1,000 square feet of retail space and two food stands for businesses passing through the incubator. Products will rotate as businesses enter and leave the program, with the idea that customers can stop by every day and find something new.
“One day it will be mimosas and another day it will be samosas,” Ashworth said.
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The mezzanine floor will have classrooms where entrepreneurs can learn business skills and offices they can use. Ultimately, the goal is for business owners to be prepared to go it alone, whether it’s a storefront or in partnership with another business. Hy-Vee has promised to sell some of the successful products, Ashworth said.
The building will also have 32 apartments, with 51 percent of the units reserved for tenants earning 80 percent or less of the area median income.
Center @ Sixth recently received $1.8 million in tax increment financing from the Des Moines City Council. The council also agreed to provide a $300,000 match if the Iowa Economic Development Authority selects Ashworth for a grant from the state’s new nonprofit innovation fund. Gov. Kim Reynolds created the $20 million fund this year with money from the federal America’s Rescue Plan Act to help nonprofits expand to meet the needs of Iowans.
Ashworth said he was personally invited by Reynolds to apply. Eligible costs include costs of construction, acquisition, site development, engineering and architectural services.
Center @ Sixth also accepts donations through the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines.
Construction should last about 14 months.