This new D.C. strip mall is dedicated to Black-owned businesses
When Angel Gregorio opened a new location for her specialty spice shop called the Spice Suite, she invited several other Black women business owners to join her. She thought big.
Instead of just opening her own brick-and-mortar, she transformed a 7,500 square foot lot in D.C.'s Langdon neighborhood into a retail community for local Black-owned businesses. She dubbed the space, which is located at 2201 Channing St. NE and had its soft launch on Friday, Black And Forth.
"It was just this catchy, cool name that I created for how I describe my process of going back-and-forth with Black business owners," Gregorio tells DCist/WAMU. "And now it is the name of a shopping center — a strip mall — that I own in D.C. So I feel good about that and I'm grateful to be in the space."
Gregorio felt ready and was excited to deliver on her novel concept. Her own spice shop opened in the lot on Friday and will be joined by four other salon businesses in the next three to four weeks. The hair, nail, waxing, and braid salons will lease commercial space from Gregorio and are going to set up shop inside renovated shipping containers. The owner of the nail salon business, Nail'd it, had been operating inside her apartment in Southeast for the last six years, according to NBC4.
"We have a lot of conversation about affordable housing, but we don't talk enough about making commercial space affordable for Black women. And so since no one is talking about it, I'm just going to do it and let people talk about it," says Gregorio.
Gregorio says she purchased the space for more than $1 million in December 2021, in part with D.C. government dollars. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced earlier this week that one of her administration's goals is to increase the share of minority-owned businesses to 33% by 2028 — and Gregorio is helping the city to meet that goal. According to D.C. officials, Gregorio was the first applicant of the city's Commercial Property Acquisition Fund, which provides assistance through grants of up to $750,000 or 25% of the sale price to eligible businesses aiming to expand or maintain a commercial property. To date, the Bowser Administration awarded $4 million to 12 businesses through the first round of the Commercial Property Acquisition Fund. Applications are still open.
At-Large Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie helped to create the fund with Gregorio's business in mind.
"We're going to keep making these sorts of investments, so we can do the sorts of transformational things that allow our Black and brown entrepreneurs not only to be great business people [but] to build wealth that they can pass on for generations to come," McDuffie said at Friday's ribbon cutting ceremony for Spice Suite and Black And Forth. McDuffie was one of several D.C. officials who celebrated alongside Gregorio, including the mayor herself.
Gregorio says she got her development ready in under a year, a feat for local businesses, particularly in under commercially developed neighborhoods. "Financially, it's almost like you have to," she says. "Unless you're super rich, you can't afford to pay a mortgage for years while you're doing construction on a project." Despite the quick timeline, Gregorio admitted to facing some "hiccups." One of the big challenges she faced was being unfamiliar with the process, from permitting to construction. The bureaucratic process was complicated, even for someone who had already owned a retail space in Takoma. But as she told the crowd at her grand opening, she worked closely with D.C.'s Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falcicchio to better understand the process.
The learning was a two-way street: Falcicchio said at the opening that the application process for the Commercial Property Acquisition Fund had improved thanks to Gregorio's experience and guidance. Now applicants must take one-on-one courses before applying in order to better understand what they are in for.
Gregorio continues to grow Black and Forth: she has a goal of opening a farmers market in the spring, where she'll invite Black farmers and growers to sell their produce and other goods on Sundays. Until then, locals are welcome to visit the Spice Suite, which will be open Thursday through Sunday and sell items familiar to past patrons like spices, honey, and seeds. Just like at her former retail space along 4th Street NW, the Spice Suite at Langdon will welcome guest pop-ups to sell their products free of charge, says Gregorio. That Takoma location hosted more than 450 businesses, she says.
"The goal of this space is to build community," says Gregorio.
Another goal of Gregorio's is for there to be more than one Black-owned, woman-run strip mall in D.C. "I want this to become the model," Gregorio told the crowd at her ribbon cutting ceremony. "I want to be able to consult for free and talk to other people on how to do this in your city, in your quadrant, so this becomes the standard of how we care for each other and how we show up for community."
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