On a recent sweltering July morning, Toan Nguyen and Fabian Kuttner stood in a vast basement in the IX complex on Second Street Southeast. As forklifts rumbled across the warehouse floor above them, they explained how the raw space could be a catalyst for change.
Despite its relative affluence, Charlottesville has an income gap problem, Nguyen said, and the way to close it is with jobs. The city needs a light industrial hub, a central spot where people can find meaningful work. Nguyen, an entrepreneur, and Kuttner, part owner and manager of IX, are among a number business-minded residents ready to make it happen with the Green Dot Cooperative, a partner-owned corporation that will steer jobs and wealth to where they’re needed most.
The effort is in its infancy, but it’s gaining key supporters. Kuttner is offering the IX warehouse at a low rent, and Charlottesville City Councilor Kathy Galvin brought a group of young architects onboard who are volunteering their time to design the space. Supporters feel like they’ve hit on a winning formula.
“It’s a deeper understanding of poverty, and a deeper understanding of how to end it,” Kuttner said.
The challenge was laid out last September in a report created by former Tom Perriello aide Ridge Schuyler and colleague Meg Hannan. Dubbed the Orange Dot Project, it tracked income disparities revealed by the newest census data. Among the city’s wealthier green-colored neighborhoods were pockets where the household incomes fell well below the city’s median—concentrations of poverty delineated by orange dots.
The cure, according to Schuyler and Hannan’s report, was employment. They envisioned a job hub that could act as both a bridge and a buffer by rallying lower-income entrepreneurs and workers around small businesses capable of winning big contracts with UVA and the City, while absorbing some of the risk inherent in doing business with small startups.
Toan Nguyen wasn’t willing to leave things there. The C’ville Coffee owner and Darden grad has already poured time and energy into finding ways to solve Charlottesville’s income inequality problem. This spring, he and partners kick-started the Community Investment Collaborative, a nonprofit that offers education and loans to low-income entrepreneurs. But organizing businesses is one problem. Winning major contracts is another.
Nguyen said local and state governments and UVA set aside big chunks of their budget for contracts with minority-owned businesses, and a cooperative corporation could capture a lot of those contracts and give the work to Charlottesville’s unemployed—many of them poor minorities.
The setup could solve a lot of the problems that often stymie startups, and create more jobs at the same time. “You have to scale it up,” he said. “But it’s doable.”
A brand new catering company would have a hard time getting hired by UVA, for instance, Nguyen said. But if people pooled their capital, built a shared commercial kitchen, and brought on a team of job-seekers, they could land big contracts and help their neighbors in the process.
“It provides stability; it provides insurance,” he said. “No matter what happens, you’ll fulfill that contract.”
Nguyen and his partners and supporters—Kuttner, Galvin, the businesses involved in CIC, and members of Charlottesville’s growning start-up community, including Darden School leaders—have named the corporation the Green Dot Cooperative, because it aims to turn the orange parts of Schuyler and Hannan’s map green. It doesn’t yet have a board or a CEO. But thanks to Kuttner, it has a home, and there’s a talented team working to give it shape.
The Virginia Society of the American Institute of Architects’ Emerging Leaders in Architecture program, which each year gives up-and-comers the chance to work on a design challenge somewhere in the Commonwealth, is focusing on turning part of the IX space into the kitchen Nguyen said will be a key first step in launching Green Dot.
Eventually, the warehouse could also house textile production, woodworking, and computer repair enterprises. Before that, there needs to be a business plan, and that’s going to require time and money.
But Nguyen is working to build interest in the idea among public officials, UVA leaders, and members of the business community, from potential big investors to the entrepreneurs who might soon be co-op members.
Bernard Whitsett II, a financial consultant, chair of the local Minority Business Council, and a Green Dot supporter, said getting the people who will benefit most to buy in will be a challenge—but a winnable one.
Whitsett grew up in the 10th and Page community, one of the city’s historically black neighborhoods and a spot that remains stubbornly orange on the income gap map. He said it can be hard to convince people that building wealth isn’t a zero sum game.
“We have to bring this before a lot of different folks,” he said. “You have to allow people to see the vision.”
Nguyen has vision in abundance. He sees potential, he said—in the dusty warehouse, and in the neighborhoods Green Dot wants to empower.
“I’m so excited about what this can be,” he said.