Marquas Ashworth doesn’t plan to start her Center @ Sixth project until the spring, but she’s already sending two companies through her incubator program.
Once complete, the building at 1714 Sixth Ave. will host a non-profit organization that helps black and brown entrepreneurs build their businesses with the help of area professionals such as lawyers, accountants and planners.
To help test the concept, he’s working with Nadia La Baker and Jambo African Cuisine, helping both launch booths at the downtown Des Moines farmers market. Ashworth said the concept seems to be working and both owners have regularly sold their products every Saturday.
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“It’s been great to see it work,” he said, adding “It’s more fun than making money, making music, making whiskey.” In addition to developing Center @ Sixth, Ashworth is a hip-hop artist, producer and founder of Media Fresh Records and creator of small-batch Ziyad Rye whiskey.
To get the businesses off the ground, Center @ Sixth, in partnership with Principal Financial Group and EMC Insurance Cos., covered start-up costs for necessities like pop-up tents, cash registers, tables and signage — “everything what these companies need to slide in. get in and start making money,” Ashworth said. He also paid his Farmers’ Market fees, which can exceed $1,000, said Aminatha Mkama, owner of Jambo African Cuisine.
“It’s helped me a lot, especially since I’m starting out, of course,” he said. “I should buy all these things while still investing heavily in this business.”
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Mkama sells East African cuisine, mainly from Tanzania, where she was originally from. The main course is a coconut cream rice filled with chicken, beans and vegetables.
She said she wasn’t sure Iowans would embrace her cooking, especially at 7 a.m., but the customer base she built as a caterer and at festivals has grown tremendously since she started just a month ago. Last week’s market was slow because of the Iowa State Fair, he said, but he was left with only four servings when the market closed.
“I am very blessed,” Mkama said. “We have a lot of customers that we’ve met from parties, so I see them almost every Saturday. They come to pick up their lunches, their dinner.”
Ashworth said Nadia La Baker, who started at the market a few weeks earlier, is in the same position. Owner Nadia Ahissou, a French-style home baker of croissants, baguettes and other pastries, has already been able to upgrade her equipment and is looking for a shop, she said. could not be reached for comment.
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Meanwhile, Ashworth is preparing to break ground on the four-story, $10 million development in the spring. The first floor will include three anchor tenants: a yet-to-be-announced local coffee shop and restaurant, as well as a tasting room for Ashworth’s Ziyad Rye, featuring new and favorite products, plus other whiskey producers black and brown .
Among the anchors, there will be 1,000 square feet of retail space and two food stands for businesses that come through the incubator. Products will rotate as companies enter and exit the program, with the idea that customers can stop by any day and find something new.
“It will be mimosas one day and samosas another day,” Ashworth said.
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The loft will have classrooms for entrepreneurs to learn business skills and offices they can use. Ultimately, the goal is for business owners to be ready to go out on their own, either in a storefront or by partnering with another company. Hy-Vee has committed to selling some of the successful products, Ashworth said.
The building will also feature 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 City of Des Moines. The council also agreed to provide a $300,000 match if the Iowa Economic Development Authority chooses Ashworth for a grant from the state’s new Nonprofit Innovation Fund. Gov. Kim Reynolds created the $20 million fund this year with federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act to help nonprofits expand to meet the needs of Iowans.
Ashworth said Reynolds personally invited him to apply. Eligible expenses include the 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 take about 14 months.