Ariell Johnson of Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

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By the end of this year, you could walk into a Philly rec center and find a barber school, a comic book store, a community seafood program, or one of seven other small businesses from a Philadelphia entrepreneur.

More than 600 people applied to the city’s new “Making Space” initiative, way more than anticipated, officials said. Around 80% of applicants were people of color.

Run by the Department of Parks and Recreation in collaboration with REC Philly, with funding from the Knight Foundation, the new entrepreneur-in-residence program offers local creatives and makers a chance to set up shop in unused rec center space. 

The deal: free rent for the biz owner in exchange for a commitment to providing free programming for tweens, teens, or young adults. Ten finalists were announced this week.

One of them is Buddy Hall, a lifelong Philadelphian who runs an apparel printing company. He’s enthusiastic about the possibility of getting institutional support to expand his business’s existing mentorship programs, since it was so important to his own development.

“Being able to have mentors and older guys that not only taught me to play basketball, but also just to stay positive, really community oriented — that’s something that stuck with me,” Hall told Billy Penn.

The mentorship component is absolutely central to the program, said Parks & Rec Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell, who said Making Space is also about staying relevant to the next generation.

“We have heard loud and clear from young people throughout the city that they might not be looking for the same traditional types of recreation that we were looking for,” Ott Lovell said.

The program aims to match the winners with rec centers in their own communities, if possible. All 10 finalists are getting business coaching, consulting, and $1,500 in cash, meant in part to help them submit a formal proposal for use of the rec center space. Four winners will be chosen to actually open there, and be awarded between $25k and $75k to adapt the space to their business’s needs.

Who is contending to open up shop in a rec center? Read on to learn more about them and their ideas.

P. Michael Boone: Junior Barber Academy

P. Michael Boone of Junior Barber Academy (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

Boone is a recently retired barber who’s been in the business over three decades. For the past 5 years, he’s run the Junior Barber Academy, where he teaches school-aged kids how to cut hair, how to get a license, and how to run your own shop — along with social and emotional skills. 

For the rec center space, his plans include an after school program and a summer camp.

In Boone’s words: “Yesterday, I got a call from one of my past students. He’s been working for about a year now, learning how to cut, practicing … He said Mr. P, do you know any place that I can get a summer job and maybe work as a barber? And I didn’t have a place that I can recommend. But if we had this … I could provide a space for him, a safe space that he could come in and start cutting here.”

Ericka Stewart: Social Impact Cafe

Social Impact Cafe does food distributions and works with community fridges in Northwest Philly. It works to create “socially liberating experiences where marginalized communities can … feel empowered when they’re shopping for their basic needs,” said Stewart, the organization’s president and CEO.

She’d use the rec center space to open a community cafe with healthy options made from rescued food, operating on a pay-what-you-can basis. Programming for young people would teach them about the food service industry, sustainability, and conservation.

In Stewart’s words: “We want it to be a dining experience that people look forward to, and we want the young people to know that this is a space for them as well.”

Valerie Gay: Fuse Vox + Fortress Arts

Valerie Gay of Fuse Vox + Fortress Arts (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

Gay calls herself a creative and serial entrepreneur. She runs Fortress Arts Academy, which teaches teens entrepreneurship and civic engagement, and Fuse Vox, a fashion company that combines African prints, denim, and mudcloth in its designs. 

The rec center would provide a physical home for both brands, where she’d host programming for kids to help them “chart their own path.”

In Gay’s words: “Our goal ultimately is to work with young people to help them create their own businesses — be it music or art or civic engagement as well as design, and for them to be in stores as well as going around the city to create opportunities.”

June Thompson: Tony Manz Entertainment

Thompson runs Tony Manz Entertainment, which does media production marketing and offers “a range of local opportunities and a safe space to give a creative outlet.” At a rec center, they’d teach kids how to produce, write, and market their own music.

In Thompson’s words: “We’re looking to help kids learn about music and learn about songwriting, which is a creative force in our community.”

Rahmi Halaby: Linden Ave Studio

Rahmi Halaby: Linden Ave Studio (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

Halaby is the founder of Linden Ave Studio, a marketing design studio that also sells clothing internationally.  The firm has worked with big brands like Converse and New Balance, Halaby said.

His rec center vision includes the “Linden Ave Academy,” which would teach kids things like product design, screenprinting, creative concepting, social media strategy, and how to run a pop-up shop.

In Halaby’s words: “I grew up as a basketball player, so like, I was raised in a community center. And so I think being able to afford my knowledge and pass that on in the same setting that I am able to be here today from, would mean a lot to me.”

Talia Young: Fishadelphia

Fishadelphia is a community seafood program that sources fresh fish and shellfish from New Jersey and sells it on a sliding scale to people in Philly. Founded by Young, it runs after-school programming at two local high schools, where students help operate the program.

Aside from once a week when packing happens in a high school culinary suite, the program is being run “basically out of our basements,” Young said, so it would be great to have a rec center space that’s “anchored in neighborhoods.”

In Young’s words: “One of the reasons that it’s been really important for us to be based in schools is because I really want to be anchored in institutions that people in communities feel comfortable going to, and I think rec centers and schools are both like that.”

Buddy Hall: USG Print and Press

Buddy Hall of USG Print and Press (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

Hall runs USG Print and Press, which makes hats, socks, t-shirts, hoodies, and other apparel.

He’s already been hosting entrepreneurship workshops in some Philly rec centers, Hall said, where young people learn how to create their own logos and designs. If he won the new space, he’d have a dedicated spot to teach kids about machinery operation, business communication, accounting, and marketing.

In Hall’s words: “The goal is … violence prevention for us. Just to try to make sure, if nothing else, that if they’re wearing their own apparel, then they won’t cover the apparel that’s out here that they’re looking to engage in violence in in order to be able to earn it to some degree.”

Ariell Johnson: Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse

Johnson opened Amalgam in Kensington in 2015, but the bookstore-slash-cafe closed last year due to pandemic-era challenges. The shop has been recognized as the first Black woman-owned comic shop on the East Coast.

Since shutting down the shop, Johnson has been operating the business online, so she’s excited about a potential rec center space. She envisions teaching young people storytelling, world-building, and character development, and making it clear to “weird kids” like her that creative careers — from video game design to being a part of the circus — are a viable option.

In Johnson’s words: “Amalgam was always about community and really encouraging folks to not just read comics, but to appreciate storytelling and the different ways that you can tell stories … So coming into the rec center and continuing that kind of programming really makes sense for us.”

Finalsts for Park & Rec’s Making Space program with Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell and other program officials. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

Maritza Pedlar: FLOWS Grocery

Currently an ecommerce brand, FLOWS Grocery sells grocery and personal care items supplied by Black-owned brands.

Pedlar’s plans for a rec center space would include selling retail products and hosting pop-up shops and healthy food demonstrations. Her programming for youth would focus on healthy cooking, content creation, and entrepreneurship.

Vernique Fields: Into Fields Live Entertainment

Fields runs Into Fields Live Entertainment, a business that provides entertainment services like professional DJing and photo booth setups at events.

At a rec center, she would open a DJ/photo booth/production business, where she’d teach youth about working in entertainment.

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Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...