Alberta Commons: Doing business on Dream Street
As part of the business community in Northeast Portland, Jamaal and Christina Lane, Theotis Cason Sr., and Dayna and Cole Reed knew one other in the way that business owners in a neighborhood do.
But since signing on as the first small business tenants to fill retail spaces at Alberta Commons, they've become a family of sorts.
Alberta Commons, in the 5000 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, is an urban retail shopping center bordered by Northeast Garfield Avenue, and Alberta and Sumner streets. The 22,000 square-foot development opened last year with Natural Grocers as an anchor tenant, bringing a much-needed outlet with fresh and natural food options to the neighborhood.
However, the project, developed by Majestic Realty and built by Colas Construction, also aims to achieve another goal — to provide new opportunities to bring back residents and businesses forced from the area as a result of redlining real estate practices in the 1950s and '60s and gentrification more recently.
While there are other locally owned businesses already along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the business owners opening their doors at Alberta Commons have been tasked with a unique role.
In addition to helping spur business ownership in the community — the Lanes operate Champions Barbershop, Cason runs Cason's Fine Meats and the Reeds are the owners of greenHAUS gallery — they were selected for the retail spaces in part because they've agreed to serve as community leaders willing to step forward to encourage residents in the area to support local, minority-owned businesses.
It's a role they all say they're willing to embrace.
For Cason, the Lanes and the Reeds, having a presence in a building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard is about more than a storefront. It's about a connection to community in a neighborhood that's helped each of them find a place where they — and their businesses — can thrive.
A cut above
Visiting the community barber shop may be a rite of passage for many young men of color, but it wasn't part of Jamaal Lane's childhood in Northeast Portland. He visited local shops once or twice with his grandfather, but never really saw them as a place where the neighborhood could come together.
Because money was tight, his mother would cut his hair when he was young. When he reached middle school, he managed to get hold of a pair of clippers and began cutting his own hair. His friends noticed and asked him to cut their hair. By high school, he was cutting hair for friends and family members in the locker room at school or in the living room at home.
While he had a natural talent, he considered it a hobby rather than a business. After graduating from Benson High School, he attended college for a time but decided that wasn't the right fit. He then went on to try a series of jobs, from working on roofs to buffing and polishing floors, looking for the right career fit. However, after injuries from a car accident prevented him from continuing with manual labor, he decided to return to his natural talent. He enrolled in barber college and began learning his craft.
After receiving his state license, he was hired in 2003 as the first employee at a barber shop on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard that had been newly opened by Reggie Brown. It was there that Lane learned that the business of barbering was about more than simply cutting hair.
"It was a true, traditional barber shop; it grew to be the community spot — we built the environment of community there," Lane said. "That's where I learned what I wanted out of a barber shop and I had my own vision of what I wanted to do and what I wanted to offer the clients and the environment I wanted to be in every day."
By 2008, he felt ready to strike out on his own. He opened Champions Barbershop with a location on MLK Boulevard.
After noticing that a large number of clients frequenting the Northeast shop were from the Beaverton area, Lane opened a second Champions location in that city at the corner of Baseline Road and 170th Avenue.
He and his wife, Christina, also opened a barber college, where students learn as much about customer service and running a business as they do about cutting hair. The school currently has an enrollment of 25 or so students, who work toward their state-issued licenses by working at the Champions shops, from sweeping floors and taking payments to giving haircuts.
After 10 years in his original Northeast Portland location, Lane said he was ready for a new spot. The Alberta Commons space felt like the right choice for several reasons. In addition to the abundant natural light from extensive windows, the space features a roll-up door, something he has always wanted for his shop. The unfinished space also allowed him to take his past experience designing previous spaces and fine-tune them, working with Tuan Vu of Propel Studios as project architect and Owen & Owen Builders as general contractor.
"I think we hit a home run with this one," Lane said. "The first (shop), I had an idea, a vision of what I wanted. The second one (in Beaverton) I was able do a little bit more customization. This one I think is the one that can be replicated."
Champions opened in Alberta Commons on April 19. Even as Lane settles into his shop's new space, he's looking at where he'll take the company next. He and his wife are gearing up to open three more shops in the Portland metro area in the future.
They're also taking a hard look at creating a franchise or similar business expansion. But no matter how big Champions grows, it's a safe bet there will always be a location in Northeast Portland.
"This neighborhood is who I am," Jamaal Lane said. "I was raised on this strip pretty much. Not that this is all I know, but this is every bit a part of me. I don't have to leave my roots, my neighborhood to establish a business. I feel I can be successful right here, at home."
He also hopes he can provide an example for young people in the neighborhood. "I want them to be able to see what we can do right here… I want them to see it, this is what you can do."
Meat and greet
When it came to looking for business owners with deep roots in the community, Jessie Burke, who was hired by Prosper Portland to recruit the local businesses for Alberta Commons, knew the perfect man for the job.
Theotis Cason Sr., the founder and owner of Cason's Fine Meats, has been a part of the Northeast Portland business community for more than 40 years. He's been a part of the neighborhood for even longer.
A natural born entrepreneur, he found his first job at the age of 8, when the owner of the neighborhood market hired Cason and his brother to sweep up the pieces of a broken gumball machine. That task turned into a regular job. At the same time, Cason started up his own shoeshine business at the barbershop next to the market.
He was 12 when, after seeing the butchers at work in the meat department at a Safeway store, he realized the specific career path he wanted to follow. He worked as an apprentice butcher, became a journeyman and then went on to work for several grocers, including Safeway and Fred Meyer. In 1975, he opened his own butcher shop, which he named Cason's Fine Meats. While the business relocated several times over the years to different parts of Northeast Portland, the shop's natural-grown meats, homemade sausage and popular barbecue remained as constants.
The space at Alberta Commons is the first time Cason been a 'first tenant.' One of his longtime customers, Stephen Blackstone of Interior Architects, served as project architect while Burke connected Cason with Orange Construction as general contractor.
Cason already knows how the butcher shop's grand opening in June will play out.
"I'm looking to put that key in the door and let my grandbabies cut the ribbon," he said, "and we're going to have the past, the present and the future all there."
Someplace like home
Jessie Burke knew that at least one of the businesses that would fill space at Alberta Commons would need to be run by a community activist who could drum up community support.
She turned to Cole Reed, an artist and furniture maker who, with her wife, Dayna, was operating greenHAUS gallery in Northeast Portland.
The Reeds had moved to Portland from Arizona in 2015 when they were looking for a place to raise their son, Phoenix, now 4, where their parental rights would be respected. As they learned about the history of Northeast Portland and the efforts being undertaken with projects like Alberta Commons to restore a community of color in the area, they decided the area was the perfect spot for their business. They also opened NXT Industries, an inclusive co-working space for creatives, especially artists of color.
When they learned about a retail space available at Alberta Commons, they realized the development offered a unique opportunity.
"The land (and) the space have a long history in the community," Dayna Reed said. "But the building itself, we are a part of that foundational story, of building Dream Street with these other businesses. I think that really inspired and captivated us to be a part of that growth with Champions and Cason's Fine Meats."
Even before the Reeds, Cason and the Lanes began working to fine-tune their new spaces, the business owners had established themselves as a business family. They even started meeting weekly to discuss how to drum up community support. While each business is planning its own opening events — greenHAUS gallery, for example, will hold a soft opening on May 11 — the three businesses will host a block party in the next couple of months.
As the Reeds wait for general contractor Orange Construction to finish their space — the couple used Stephen Blackstone of IA as their project architect — they feel content that they've found a good home for their business. With more space than their previous location, they'll be able to support more artists. While the majority of the artwork they show is from local creatives, the Reeds also seek out national and international talent.
They also see themselves, along with the Lanes and Cason, as helping to build a new base from which the neighborhood can establish a new story, one the currently residents and businesses can write themselves.
"It's starting a new chapter," Cole Reed said. "Definitely the people who came before us ... the legacy continues. Us being a part of Dream Street ... it's a continuation. We're building a foundation for other entrepreneurs to follow."
The right fit
Alberta Commons' first tenant, Natural Grocers, opened approximately one year ago. For Theotis Cason Sr., Jamaal and Christina Lane, and Dayna and Cole Reed, the journey has been even longer.
Jessie Burke, the real estate broker hired by Prosper Portland to find local businesses to fill the retail spaces at Alberta Commons, said it's been a two-year process that's brought the businesses owned by Cason, the Lanes and the Reeds to spaces at the urban retail shopping center.
Burke began her assignment with some specific parameters. While Prosper Portland wanted a local business that had a proven track record, the agency planned on giving preference to African American-owned or operated ventures.
The business also needed to be of a type that would encourage foot traffic.
She first began reaching out to the Lanes, Cason and the Reeds, as well as other local businesses, to create a pool of potential candidates.
Because the spaces at the time were little more than raw walls and gravel floors, she helped prospective tenants look beyond the unfinished spaces.
About 100 businesses ended up applying to fill the four retail spaces available, Burke said.
A committee made up of neighborhood leaders made the final selection of the businesses that would lease the retail space, a group made up of Cason's Fine Meats, Champion Barbershop and greenHAUS gallery.
Even though Champions is the only business that has opened its doors so far, the business owners are already doing their part to step into roles as community activists working to rally the neighborhood.
"While you need certain shops to create foot traffic and a certain level of experience, you also need a champion to rally everybody, somebody willing to fight for things," Burke said. "It's already working; they're rallying the other neighbors."