Khuan-Yu Hall, Contributing Photographer

More than 150 business owners gathered at the Connecticut Community Outreach Revitalization Program center on Thursday to celebrate $1 million in funding for the program from the KeyBank Foundation. The grant will be used to reshape the local economy by supporting small, minority-owned businesses.

The Lab at ConnCORP, an outgrowth of the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology, is an incubator that hopes to revitalize the Newhallville neighborhood and New Haven by improving access to knowledge and capital for local minority-owned businesses. In an attempt to avoid gentrification, the incubator hopes to uplift those within the community rather than inject outside capital.  

According to KeyBank’s regional corporate responsibility officer Analisha Michanczyk, it was this focus on uplifting businesses and creating opportunities for low and moderate income underserved populations in Newhallville that caught the KeyBank foundation’s attention. According to the executive director of ConnCORP Aya Swanson, the grant will be given over a five year period to ensure that the incubator can continue running for the next few years. 

“Whatever we do, it’s to better the businesses in this space and to better those in the surrounding community,” Swanson said. “Newhallville is underserved and underdeveloped, and it’s one of the most poverty stricken areas in Connecticut. Our goal through entrepreneurship is to alleviate that poverty. And I think it works and the reason we can get the money directly to people is because A, they trust us, and B, we’re not trying to put barriers between them and the money.”

The incubator is currently home to 11 businesses, 9 of which are Black-owned. Partnering with Quinnipiac University, the program helps entrepreneurs navigate the paperwork and process of turning their ideas into businesses, like developing a business plan. 

Although ConnCORP’s main goal is supporting entrepreneurs, Swanson said a priority for her is that the Newhallville community feels welcome in the space and benefits from the success of ConnCORP and local businesses. According to Swanson, local communities can often feel isolated from business growth as businesses often do not have connections with those around them that would allow them to give back. Rather than bringing outside businesses in, ConnCORP has worked to strengthen businesses already in the community. 

Additionally, in thinking about how to use business to benefit New Haven, Swanson said ConnCorp has been careful to avoid bringing in investment that drives locals out of Newhallville. 

“We felt very strongly about not coming into the community and gentrifying it,” Swanson said. “Besides this program, we run a program where we are actually making sure we have affordable housing. We’re purchasing houses that are in disrepair in this neighborhood, fixing them up and offering them at affordable prices to people. By doing this work, we’re not forcing people out of the neighborhood that they grew up in, and we’re actually making life better for them.”

Evelyn Massey, owner of Noir Vintage & Co. and one of the entrepreneurs in the current cohort at the Lab, said that ConnCORP has provided crucial support for her business. She added that there are aspects of incorporation and running a business that would otherwise not be accessible. The Lab has also provided Massey a social space full of other entrepreneurs, motivating her to make her business a reality. 

Massey noted that although some programs have helped diversify the business environment in New Haven, gentrification in New Haven poses a hurdle to business benefiting the city. 

“Some parts of New Haven are sort of segregated,” Massey said. “We need affordable housing for people that can’t afford high rents … And a lot of people can’t afford them, and they’re not for the people that actually live here. I think that’s unfair.”

Owner of Mental Growth & Internal Healing Shenira Billups, another member of the Labs first cohort, said that without ConnCORP’s assistance she would be “flying blind”. Like Massey, she also said that ConnCORP has offered assurance and support that has helped boost her confidence in herself and her business. 

Billups also said that what makes ConnCORP unique in the New Haven economic ecosystem is its focus on community and local business growing together. 

“There’s nothing wrong with big business, but it’s just that you have these things taking over,” Billup said. “The little people lose out. And then you got the same folks coming around and it does nothing for really building community.”

ConnCORP CEO Eric Clemons said that, in addition to ConnCORP’s Lab, ConnCAT will be helping revitalize the community through their Dixwell development that will provide 184 units a housing, a supermarket, restaurants, retail spaces, a 300 seat Performing Arts Center, a 60,000 square foot office tower, townhouses greenhouses and a plaza for the community.

According to Clemons, ConnCAT has performed an economic analysis that showed that the property will bring $1 billion to New Haven, $100 million to the Dixwell neighborhood, 600 jobs and 700 construction jobs. For Clemons, both ConnCAT and ConnCORP are designed to provide wealth generation opportunities for historically disadvantaged communities. 

“The way I see success in this is the number of folks who are indigenous to this community whose lives changed socially and economically because of this,” Clemons said.

The Lab at ConnCORP is located at 496 Newhall St.

Khuan-Yu Hall is the City Editor at the News. He is a sophomore in Davenport, from Hartland, Vermont, double majoring in Statistics and Data Science and Ethics, Politics, and Economics.