A few months ago, Fernanda Lay's small business was in limbo.
The single mom had been working for a few years to establish Popi's Pastries, which focuses on Brazilian tapas. She'd had limited success selling at farmers markets and catering events before hitting what felt to Lay like a brick wall.
"I'm great at cooking, but not the other (business) stuff," she said.
Despite having access to a commercial kitchen at the Sunrise Center in Rockwood, where Lay lives, she was ready to give up on her dream of having her own small food-focused business. Then she learned about a new resource that had arrived in the neighborhood on the western edge of Gresham. She paid the nonprofit, Micro Enterprise Services (MESO) of Oregon, a visit in the building on the corner of Southeast 187th Avenue and Southeast Stark Street that's part of a city-owned property that previously featured a Fred Meyer store.
The visit was life — and business — changing for Lay. She's now a few weeks away from opening a food cart at Portland Mercado, a giant step for her business that she credits as the result of the support, business advice and access to a micro loan that she found at MESO.
If the three-phase Rockwood Rising project planned for the former Fred Meyer site works out as the city of Gresham anticipates, Lay's success story may become more common in the community.
A decade in the making, Rockwood Rising is a $72 million development that aims to create employment and job training opportunities, help aspiring entrepreneurs kickstart businesses, and, offer much needed housing for a community that has fallen on hard times in the past decade or two
Started in the 1950s as a place for soldiers returning from the war to buy starter homes using G.I. Bill and V.A. loans, Rockwood eventually became a landing spot for low-income families forced out of North and Northeast Portland by rising housing prices. Currently, 38% of families in Rockwood live below the poverty level — higher than any single West Coast neighborhood between Seattle and Los Angeles. Stories in the media have highlighted the neighborhood's high crime rates and lack of employment opportunities.
But Josh Fuhrer, who grew up in Rockwood and now serves as the head of Gresham's urban renewal agency, says that's just one version of the community. As a landing point for immigrants and refugees looking for a fresh start, a total of 70 languages are spoken by Rockwood residents. The neighborhood also has the youngest median age of any of the 38 town centers in the Portland metro area. To Fuhrer, that diversity and young energy have the potential to revitalize Rockwood.
"I think the story about the crime and the gangs was a phase that we're moving out of ... that's not the primary story happening in Rockwood anymore," he said. "I think if you talk to people in Rockwood, they will tell you they have more hope and a more positive perspective about living in Rockwood than they've had in the past several years."
Looking for a sign
Rockwood Rising is planned for a roughly five-acre site in the heart of Rockwood that the city purchased after a Fred Meyer store located on the property closed — eliminating much-needed jobs in the community — in the early 2000s.
When completed in 2021, the project will feature a main plaza surrounded by a new office building, a mixed-use building with ground-floor retail spaces and a combination of low-income-restricted and market rate apartments, as well as a public market and food hall.
The office building, and the renovation of an existing building where MESO has a local office, will break ground next month with four anchor tenants already signed on. It's a feat that the many in the Portland metro development industry predicted would be impossible to achieve.
Fuhrer was a Gresham city councilor when the city gathered a group of developers, real estate brokers and land use planners for a brainstorming session about how to best the develop the site. The group predicted Rockwood's crime and poverty rates would make it almost impossible to find businesses willing to lease space in any new office or retail building.
Fuhrer had more than 23 years of experience in real estate, including running his own small private commercial development company. He saw potential in the property and in the neighborhood. So, he quit the council and took the job as the head of the Gresham Redevelopment Commission. He started working on the Rockwood Rising project with the same approach he uses for his private development projects.
"Story is very important to me," said Fuhrer, who worked as an actor in New York City before entering the world of real estate. "What's the story you're trying to tell with this site? If you don't understand that, all the drawings and market analyses don't matter. You've got to know who you're serving and how and why."
To gather that information, Fuher decided to turn to people who knew best what Rockwood needed — the neighborhoods residents.
He hired a staff that reflected the Rockwood community — more than half of his employees are minorities and the team speaks seven languages — and began connecting with leaders in the neighborhood's diverse communities
"We created a kitchen-sink group of stakeholders, an entry point into community groups that typically get overlooked by city government — and who often don't trust government due to past bad experiences," Fuhrer said.
At each of more than 150 community engagement events held at locations ranging from parks to churches over a three-year period, attendees were asked to identify their biggest day-to-day challenges and to share their definitions of success for themselves, their families and their community.
The end result was thousands of data points, but as Fuhrer and his team sifted through the results, they found three main areas that posed the biggest challenges for Rockwood's residents: skills training and employment, opportunities for entrepreneurs, and access to healthy and affordable food.
Fuhrer's team also identified a common thread among the responses that would guide the future of the Rockwood Rising project.
"It became very clear ... our story was about economic empowerment," Fuhrer said. "So, every decision we made on the project from there all the way down to the color of the doorknobs has been pointing back to this story of ... creating economic opportunity in one of Oregon's most economically challenged neighborhoods. It's been a great story to tell."
Telling a tale
Even with a great storyline, Fuhrer and the city knew they would face hurdles when it came to finding a developer to take on the Rockwood Rising project.
"We recognized that Rockwood is a challenging place to do a development, that if we wanted to get qualified development firms to respond to our request for proposals, we had to set the table for them," Fuhrer said. "We had to reduce their biggest risks ... we had to be creative."
Fuhrer and his team started by forming partnerships with MESO and Mount Hood Community College's Small Business Development Center to provide support and resources for aspiring entrepreneurs and residents looking to grow small ventures they had already started. They tapped a nonprofit called Worksystems to connect job seekers with employment opportunities. Those groups all moved into the existing city-owned building across from the main Rockwood Rising site, and agreed to sign as anchor tenants in the new office building at Rockwood Rising.
In order to drive down development costs, Fuhrer and the city got creative when it came to finding funding, including tapping $3 million from the Oregon Lottery, new market tax credits, and urban renewal funds.
With a lowered development cost and promises from anchor tenants, Fuhrer and the city issued a request for development proposals that drew interest from three development teams. The city ended up selecting Roy Kim and his firm RKm Development. Portland-based YBA Architects joined as project architect.
As part of the first phase of development for Rockwood Rising, the building that MESO, the Small Business Development Center and Worksystems have been using for the for the past 18 months will be renovated. By the end of the year, the updated space will begin offering training for Rockwood residents in manufacturing and construction pre-apprenticeship programs. The programs will be operated through a joint effort by Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. and POIC, which is already a tenant in the building.
MESO, the Small Business Development Center and Worksystems will be joined by MetroEast Community Media as anchor tenants in the new office building, which is expected to take about one year to complete. LMC Construction has been selected as the general contractor for first-phase construction.
With an eye toward addressing the community call for support and resources to help area residents start their own businesses, the second phase of the Rockwood Rising development will focus on the construction of a public market. Twenty-four stalls will be occupied by local food ventures started with support from the Small Business Development Center and MESO.
The public market also will contain two commissary kitchens. One will be used by students at Rosemary Anderson High School, a program operated in conjunction with POIC. The other will replace the kitchen facilities available at Sunrise Center, where Fernanda Lay currently makes food for her Popi's Pastries business. The Sunrise Center site eventually will be redeveloped, though Fuhrer said the city has currently has no definite plans for what the site may be used for in the future.
Jason Jackson, the owner of Jason's Artisan Chocolates is happy to hear the incubator kitchen facilities will continue in an incorporation of Rockwood Rising.
Jackson was working in a warehouse when he decided to turn his passion for creating world-class chocolates into a business venture. He already had solid marketing and business plans in place, but it wasn't until he was able to access the commercial kitchen facilities at the Sunrise Center that his business took off. He's since been able to grow his business into a full-time enterprise with eight full-time employees.
One of the biggest benefits for entrepreneurs who end up working out the kitchen as it moves to the Rockwood Center, Jackson says, will be an opportunity to work among others who also are facing the challenges — and sharing the successes — of running a food-focused start-up business.
The third phase of the Rockwood Rising development calls for a mixed-use building with ground-floor retail spaces and a mix of income-restricted and market-rate apartment units.
That portion of the project was the source of criticism from at least on group that called for more affordable units. However, the city and the developer both support the planned mix. While Rockwood has the highest amount of subsidized affordable housing in the Portland metro area, according to Fuhrer, there's a shortage of mid-range rental units.
The mixed-use building still has a funding gap, Fuhrer said, and the city is considering whether it will be able to tap assistance from a metro affordable housing bond to help the project pencil out. That decision could be made by this summer, in time for the project to start later this year.
Gentrification is what led many people to move to Rockwood. If Gresham's plan to spark employment and entrepreneurship opportunities in the community help reinvent the neighborhood, it would be understandable if some residents voiced concerns about a similar situation happening eventually in the community.
Fuhrer says the city has taken that into consideration and believes the steps being taken to provide paths for people to increase their economic stability that will allow them to fill the city's currently missing middle-range of incomes will help keep a balance in the area. Still, he admits that Rockwood Rising is basically a "big experiment."
He and the city will be tracking the progress of Rockwood Rising as it settles into the community. They won't be alone. Word of the project already has spread, and Fuhrer has heard from city governments in other parts of the country interested in learning more about Rockwood Rising.
"I would love to see this become a model," Fuhrer said. "There's not a city in the country that doesn't need a Rockwood Rising. Every city is dealing with these issues; this is our attempt to solve them.
"I don't think Rockwood Rising is going to solve all of the (community's) problems. It can't, nor should we put that burden on it. But it's a down payment in that direction."
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