DALLAS—In his southern Dallas neighborhood, George Battle III can hear the subtle hum of business, despite the vacant lots and shuttered shops. He knows a woman who makes flower arrangements in her home, caterers who cook in church kitchens, and a man who does carpentry and plumbing work.
"It's almost like they're below grass-roots," he said.
The Fair Park District Entrepreneur Center, or the District for short, will be funded by the United Methodist Church's North Texas Conference as part of the Zip Code Connection, an initiative to spark economic growth in areas with generational poverty. The center is expected to open in March or April.
The new entrepreneur center will be across town from most of Dallas' startup hubs and co-working spaces. Its surroundings—an empty plot of land, a boarded-up convenience store and panhandlers—reflect the struggles of the Fair Park neighborhood.
Instead of hosting startups with the latest app or gadget, it will focus on entrepreneurship that creates jobs and meets neighborhood needs, said Battle, the director of Zip Code Connection for South Dallas Fair Park.
Battle would like to see locals start businesses like a copy shop, an internet cafe, a company that paves driveways and parking lots, bakeries and produce stores.
"The sky's the limit for any entrepreneur in Dallas Fair Park," he said. "You name it, there will be a need. There will be a market for it."
In Fair Park, the economic obstacles go beyond the vacant lots. Its ZIP code, 75215, represents the poorest urban area in Dallas County, according to U.S. Census data. More than half of households fall below the federal poverty line with incomes under $23,550 for a family of four. About 30 percent of adults over age 25 don't have a high school diploma. Some don't have cars and must get a job they can reach by walking or taking public transportation. Others have a criminal history that bars them from some jobs.
Many of the approximately 15,000 local residents juggle two or three minimum-wage jobs or rely on day labor or contract work to pay the rent, said Jay Scroggins, executive director of the public improvement district in Southern Dallas Fair Park.
City Council member Tiffinni Young, who represents the area, said the entrepreneur center can create organic growth. It can connect residents to advice and resources that turn their skills into business ventures.
"I want to make sure every chance possible, I'm pushing hope to the constituents I represent," she said. "This is another avenue to push that hope."
The entrepreneur center will open in a one-story former dry cleaner that has boarded-up windows, fire damage and a colorful mural on the side of the building with "Believe" painted in capital letters.
Starting later this month, the building will undergo a $250,000 to $300,000 renovation for electrical work and plumbing. It will get office space, whiteboards, a coffee bar, a stage for events and a rooftop patio with umbrella tables.
Like other co-working spaces, entrepreneurs will be able to rent desks or cubicles. They can also attend events or meet with a mentor.
The center will have a three-person staff and volunteer mentors who guide entrepreneurs through the steps of starting a business, Battle said.
The District will be part of a growing network of entrepreneur centers affiliated with the Dallas Entrepreneur Center. It will be a franchise of the nonprofit organization. The DEC has satellite locations in Addison and Denton and a franchise in San Antonio. Later this year, it plans to open three more satellite locations in southern Dallas at Red Bird Mall, Paul Quinn College and University of North Texas at Dallas.
Doric Earle, an economic development consultant for the project, will serve as the liaison between the DEC and the District.
The District could give a boost to mom-and-pop businesses that already operate in Fair Park, like Pinson & Cole's Gourmet Pickles. Stephanie Pinson-Cole, a 63-year-old grandmother who lives in Fair Park, learned how to pickle from her grandparents, who pickled okra, carrots and onions.
Pinson & Cole Gourmet Pickles has 18 flavors of pickles, from exotic ones like sour apple and cheesecake to a spicy pickle called the Gosh Darn. Pinson-Cole sells the jars at food festivals. She hit her record of about $12,000 in pickle sales in 2016. At last year's Taste of Dallas, her cheesecake pickles sold out. Her pickles are now part of gift baskets for guests at the Hampton Inn in Addison.
If the pickle business keeps growing, she may quit her day job as a school bus driver. She has her eye on a storefront where she could warehouse her pickles and sell them with sandwiches and wings. The empty building is a short walk from the Fair Park grounds. It needs a bit of love, she said, but it would be the perfect place to call her own.