Marquas Ashworth doesn’t plan to break ground on the Center @ Sixth project until spring, but is already shipping two businesses through its incubation program.
When completed, the building at 1714 Sixth Ave. will house a nonprofit that helps Black and brown entrepreneurs start their businesses with the help of space professionals such as lawyers, accountants, and planners.
He’s working with Nadia La Baker and Jambo African Cuisine to help test the concept, and is helping both set up a booth at Des Moines’ Downtown Farmers’ Market. Ashworth said the concept works, and both owners regularly sell their products every Saturday.
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“It was so cool to watch this work,” he said. “It’s more fun than making money, making music, making whiskey.” Beyond developing Center @ Sixth, Ashworth is a hip-hop artist, producer and founder of Media Fresh Records, and creator of Ziyad Rye small batch whiskey.
Center @ Sixth, Principal Financial Group and EMC Insurance Cos. In partnership with Aminatha Mkama, owner of Jambo African Cuisine, Aminatha Mkama, owner of Jambo African Cuisine, has covered the upfront costs for necessities such as pop-up tents, cash registers, desks and signage – “everything these businesses need to slip on” and start making money. He said he also paid the Farmers Market fees.
“Of course, it has been very helpful, especially since I started,” he said. “I would have had to buy all of this while I was still very invested in this business.”
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Mkama sells East African cuisine, mainly Tanzanian. The main course is coconut cream rice stuffed with chicken, beans and vegetables.
He said he wasn’t sure if Iowans would embrace their cuisine—especially at 7am—but the customer base it’s built as a catering business and at festivals has grown tremendously since it started a month ago. He said last week’s market was slow because of the Iowa State Fair, but when the market closed there were only four servings left.
“I am so blessed,” Mkama said. “We have a lot of customers that we meet at festivals, so I see them almost every Saturday. They come to buy lunch, dinner.”
Ashworth said Nadia La Baker, who started the market a few weeks ago, is in the same position. Owner Nadia Ahissou, a home baker of French croissants, baguettes and other pastries, said she has already upgraded her equipment and is looking for a store. could not be reached for comment.
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Meanwhile, Ashworth prepares to lay the groundwork for a four-story, $10 million development in the spring. The first floor will house three main tenants – a yet-to-be-announced local coffee shop and restaurant, as well as a tasting room featuring new and favorite products for Ashworth’s Ziyad Rye, as well as guest spirits from other Black and brown whiskey producers. .
Between the anchors there will be 1,000 square feet of retail space and two food stands for businesses that pass through the incubator. As businesses move in and out of the program, products will alternate with the idea that customers can stop by and find something new every day.
“One day it will be mimosa, another day it will be samosa,” Ashworth said.
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On the mezzanine floor, there will be classrooms where entrepreneurs can learn business skills and offices they can use. Ultimately, the goal is to prepare business owners to go on their own, whether in a showcase or partnering with another business. Ashworth said Hy-Vee has promised to sell some of its successful products.
The building will also have 32 apartments, with 51% of the units reserved for tenants earning 80% or less of their median income.
Center @ Sixth recently received $1.8 million in tax increase funding from the Des Moines City Council. The council also agreed to provide a $300,000 match if the Iowa Economic Development Authority selected Ashworth for a grant from the state’s new Nonprofit Innovation Fund. Government Kim Reynolds has created $20 million in funding this year with federal American Recovery Plan Act money to help nonprofits expand to meet the needs of Iowans.
Ashworth said he was invited by Reynolds to apply in person. Eligible expenses include costs for construction, procurement, site development, engineering and architectural services.
Center @ Sixth also accepts donations through the Greater Des Moines Community Foundation.
Construction should take about 14 months.