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Akeem Dixon brings the community into the development conversation

Akeem Dixon

Commerce along 52nd Street

52nd Street Station

"Things are more likely to be sustainable if you're doing them with people rather than to or for people," explains Akeem Dixon, 52nd Street Corridor Manager for West Philadelphia's Enterprise Center. That means bringing together government, community development corporations, neighborhood organizations, local business owners and residents to tackle development strategies.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Dixon's background is in branding and advertising -- he managed clients such as Thomas Jefferson University, Independence Blue Cross and Comcast. The transition into community development was a natural one.
"Now I'm just doing the same thing for small businesses," explains Dixon. "My task is to help small businesses grow and help them reach their goals."
Since 1989, the Enterprise Center's overarching mission has been to cultivate minority entrepreneurs; spark community revitalization in low-income neighborhoods; and provide debt and equity capital to growing businesses. As the corridor manager, Dixon works with over 200 businesses and more than 30 street vendors in conjunction with the Philadelphia Department of Commerce and Philadelphia LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation). 52nd Street boasts a diverse group of merchants from all over the world.

"There are various groups of nationalities and people who have been here 20 and 30 years," says Dixon. "My job is to be the liaison between these businesses and the Department of Commerce programs and other technical assistance programs the city has to offer."
Once known as West Philly's Main Street, 52nd Street is undergoing a period of transition and revitalization. The goal is to make sure that any development is also equitable.
"We have so many institutions working with the businesses and residents," explains Dixon. "West Philly has the same kind of things happening as in other cities, but in our case people are working together with the development partners, other nonprofit stakeholders, community residents, the police department and nearby universities -- they're all there at monthly meetings designed to bring people together."
In the two years Dixon has been at the Enterprise Center, he has seen excitement about that collaboration grow.
"Once the foundation was laid, people saw that the Enterprise Center was here to assist them -- to help point them in the right direction -- and that they were going to be a part of it," he says. "That's the one thing I'm most excited about: The goal is for people to feel pride in the fact that they are a part of this, they are at the heart of this process, and they can start to create their own legacy."
Issues brought up by community members and addressed by the Enterprise Center and its partners include safety concernscorridor cleanupgreening the streetscape, and other beautification and community-led improvements. 
"Every year gets better because of the consistency and transparency of all the parties working together," argues Dixon. "Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell has also been supportive of all these endeavors, showing we're really here for the long haul to help inspire and educate people to become more self-sufficient and to have thriving businesses."
Monthly "Meetings on the Corridor" are held at local small businesses and open to everyone. Dixon remembers the first community meeting he held: Only one person showed up, and it was his cleaning guy. Now every fourth Tuesday between 30 and 40 people attend, and those who can't make it call him afterwards.
"My favorite asset is talking," he enthuses. "By talking, you can address issues and know what people are concerned about, then help them by simply placing them with people who can help them, who are dying to help them."
Assets and resources are there, but if a person doesn't know about them, they can't take advantage. 
"In a lot of instances the issue isn't money," says Dixon of the small businesses he works with. "It's things like bookkeeping, accounting, maintaining inventory, better displays in their windows. It's great to see the light bulb go off from them talking. They see for themselves what their issues are. We're literally just plugging them into a service and checking in from there."
In the coming months, the Enterprise Center will introduce ScaleUp, a new larger loan program that will enable Dixon, his colleagues and his community development peers to do even more for local businesses.
"The success we've had in the last two years on 52nd Street is a direct result of all the different community associations and the councilwoman's office and LISC and the Police Department and community residents all working together," says Dixon. "The conversations aren't always warm and fuzzy. You do experience setbacks. You don't always get grants. But the partners understand that it's all about them and the success is all about the work they've put in. That is the idea of community development to me. This is real community. We have to work together." 

This profile was originally published by Urban Innovation Exchange in partnership with Meeting of the Minds and Kresge Foundation. For more stories of people changing cities, visit UIXCities.com and follow @UIXCities.
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