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SC nonprofits break ground on Opportunity Center aimed at economic progress

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NORTH CHARLESTON — Several Charleston area nonprofits hope to mark a new era with an Opportunity Center focused on helping women, minorities and people from low-wealth communities become successful entrepreneurs.

"Here we are, standing in the fullness of time, ready to launch a new day to help those who've experienced missed opportunities to achieve prosperity," said Bernie Mazyck, president and CEO of S.C. Association for Community Economic Development.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the center was held Monday at the Rivers Avenue site, where a 31,250-square-foot former furniture store will be transformed into a space aimed at advancing economic opportunities.

The facility will include a career training facility and business incubators.

The endeavor is a collaborative effort among four area nonprofits — Increasing H.O.P.E., Center for Heirs Property Preservation, Homes of Hope Inc., S.C. Association for Community Economic Development — who will use the site to house their organizational headquarters.

The North Charleston-based facility was buoyed by a $2.7 million grant from the economic Development Administration to Homes of Hope in 2019. Other funds included the Coastal Community Foundation's $800,000 contribution, and $100,000 each from Wells Fargo and BB&T. Project partners are working to secure an additional $1 million to complete the endeavor.

The center is scheduled to be completed in August, and services are expected to begin in September. Upon its completion, the facility is anticipated to help create 45 jobs and attract nearly $4 million in private investment.

Several dozen guests attended the groundbreaking event, wearing masks as they sat and stood spaced out across the facility's parking lot.

Critical components of the center include the Business Success Center and Women's Business Center. The centers will focus on helping women and communities of color establish, grow and sustain their operations.

The Women's Business Center will be the only center operating in the Charleston region and third in the state.

Historically, entrepreneurs of color and women have faced challenges establishing their enterprises. This has been caused by a lack of access to affordable capital, accessing key markets, navigating regulations, and accessing networks that have historically helped White-owned businesses to prosper.

Nonetheless, women-led enterprises have managed to make strides. Female-owned businesses represent the fastest-growing small business in the state, said state SBA Director Gregg White.

Without support, women business owners may not be able to start or expand their businesses amid the coronavirus, White said.

White said he's looking forward to the women's center helping more South Carolina businesses obtain federal contracts, capital they need to grow businesses, and disaster assistance during the pandemic.

"We challenge all of you to support small businesses across your neighborhood," he said.

Dorothea Bernique is the executive director of Increasing H.O.P.E, a group focused on financial training that applied for the Women's Business Center grant. Bernique said Increasing H.O.P.E is excited about bringing a greater level of service to the community. 

"Having the Women's Business Center to be able to support what we're doing validates the work we've already been doing in the community," she said. "We appreciate them joining us in this effort to serve the local community."

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Dorothea Bernique Executive Director for Increasing Hope shows off the design concept for the new Opportunity Center to Gregg White and William Furman with U.S. Small Business Administration during their groundbreaking ceremony on Monday, Jan. 25, 2020 in North Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

No one has been untouched by the coronavirus and organizations are looking at ways to manage financial impacts.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said the city is expecting this year a $16 million to $18 million shortfall in revenue. Summey said the city is committed to working with the center and other groups to make life successful for many people.

"The city of North Charleston is proud you will be calling this location home," he said.

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The groundbreaking ceremony for the new Opportunity Center on Monday, Jan. 25, 2020 in North Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Darrin Goss, president and CEO of the Coastal Community Foundation, said the organization's support of the Opportunity Center is one of the most consequential investments made in the foundation's 47-year history.

He described the center as "one stop, one place with a promise to leveling the playing field for so many people who have been left out of the economic growth we see around us."

In a region where so many lag behind economically, the center could serve many as a stepping stone toward a more promising future.

Reach Rickey Dennis at 937-4886. Follow him on Twitter @RCDJunior.

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