Can rec centers be business incubators? $300,000 Knight grant could make it happen

Two Philly leaders got some extra funding for cool public space ideas.

Kathryn Ott-Lovell (left) and Anuj Gupta each won $150,000 to innovate Philly's public spaces

Kathryn Ott-Lovell (left) and Anuj Gupta each won $150,000 to innovate Philly's public spaces

Danya Henninger and the Knight Foundation

Philly just scored $300k to advance its stock of public spaces.

Via a Knight Foundation grant program designed to elevate the places where people can hang out freely, two Philadelphians were awarded $150,000 each. Philly repped this one strong — our two winners are out of just seven honorees around the country.

The fellows are:

  • Kathryn Ott-Lovell, commissioner of the Department of Parks & Recreation
  • Anuj Gupta, general manager of Reading Terminal Market

Now, the Philly winners are drafting up special projects that can innovate Philly’s community sites over the next two years. What’re they gonna do with the cash? Each offered an idea:

(Small disclaimer: With two years before either will actually implement their plans, these ideas are totally subject to change.)

Rec centers as business incubators?

How can Philly’s rec centers better serve their neighborhoods? How about

Ott-Lovell said she’d like to use her grant money to offer small business owners some recreation center real estate. For something like $1 per square foot, or for free, she could provide folks with some space to run their businesses.

“We’re really working with local communities to see what entrepreneurial ideas they have,” Ott-Lovell told Billy Penn. “If they can’t afford a storefront or a shared workspace, but they really have a wonderful idea for a small business, what if that could happen in a recreation center?”

She imagines employing some community benefits, too — like if the entrepreneurial idea engages young people, they can get a further discount on the space.

“We have space, we have great ideas,” Ott-Lovell added. “Maybe there’s a way to think beyond traditional recreation and about using these centers as a real community hub.”

Community dinners — for kids

With his grant, Gupta wants to expand the Reading Terminal Market dinner series known as Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers.

Essentially, the series brings together different communities across the city — either that don’t know one another, or that have some measure of conflict between them. For one evening at RTM, the two groups cook and eat a meal together, each with the goal of learning about the other’s experiences.

“When you give people an opportunity and a forum, despite the division and tension of our times, you can still find a sense of shared humanity,” Gupta told Billy Penn.

His dream? To offer up that program to groups of kids. If they break bread together at an early age, Gupta has the sense it’ll prevent divisions from forming in the first place.

“The most unfortunate thing for our kids, for the communities they live in, is if they simply segregate themselves and don’t get to know one another,” he said. “That only fuels future strife as they grow up.”

Flexible money is rare

Each awardee had to be nominated before even applying. Then the Knight Foundation selected them from a pool of roughly 2,000 public-space-professionals.

Ott-Lovell and Gupta are ecstatic to be chosen — both explained they rarely get money they can use in such a flexible way.

“It’s always hard in a city with so many competing priorities to get additional funds,” Ott-Lovell said. “Now, when there’s something we really want to implement, we have this little pot of money that we can dip into to say, ‘Let’s take this out for a spin.'”

“These rare people see something different when they look at streets, parks and sidewalks,” said Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for communities and impact. “We hope this recognition accelerates their visionary work and invites others to challenge the way we think about and use public space.”

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Anuj Gupta