Anchorage Community Land Trust Builds from Within, Facilitating Inclusive Neighborhood Entrepreneurship
Missy Simms owns Sweet Creations Lollipop Boutique, a neighborhood candy shop in Mountain View.
The data shows we haven’t done enough to make business ownership attainable for the many communities that call our state home. Women, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are particularly underrepresented in business ownership across Alaska. At Anchorage Community Land Trust (ACLT), we know that to ensure that the next generation of Alaskan business owners reflects our great state, we must do one simple thing: We must believe in and invest in the talented local entrepreneurs that call our city and state home.
Our Alaska story is all about the potential of entrepreneurs and small business owners and what they bring to our communities. By supporting business creation, we build communities from within and empower the next generation of community leadership.
ACLT has spent the last twenty years disrupting concentrated poverty by bringing investment and opportunity to where it matters most. We invest in neighborhoods with a block-by-block approach, working to build generational prosperity from within.
Gene Gray came through our Set Up Shop business training program in the spring of 2020, when business owners everywhere were reeling. But Gene didn’t listen to the messages telling him to scale back, or that it wasn’t the right time. Gene began his business selling traditional Polynesian baked goods out of his home, bringing the flavors of Samoa to Anchorage. As his business grew, Gene had the courage and the moxie to build his dream brick-and-mortar restaurant in the heart of Spenard, launching Tatilani restaurant successfully in the middle of the pandemic. Gene operates the business with his family, now a gathering place for the Polynesian community and an example of what is possible. Tatilani’s cuisine has gained so much popularity that Gene is already considering an expansion.
Our Set Up Shop model is driven by entrepreneurs like Gene. Set Up Shop’s pipeline of support provides training, business services, access to capital, and real estate assistance, with one-on-one support throughout the process. Since we launched the program five years ago, we have trained more than 250 entrepreneurs, provided more than 3,000 hours of technical assistance, deployed more than $250,000 in small business microloans, and launched twenty-two neighborhood businesses into their own brick-and-mortar spaces. Moreover, we are serving communities which have been under-represented for too long in business ownership. Among our clients, 70 percent are women and 80 percent identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color.
When Gene and Tatilani succeed, the Spenard community does with him. Tatilani is more than just a restaurant; it’s a place where culture is shared and experienced, a gathering place after church and to celebrate life’s special moments like graduations, and a place where vibrancy has replaced vacancy on Spenard Road. We know that when neighborhood business owners thrive, they become role models, advocates, leaders, and changemakers. They signal to residents what is possible.
Community Prosperity and Equity
Our Set Up Shop program empowers neighborhood entrepreneurs from underserved communities to build the businesses of their dreams. Entrepreneurship is a way to create greater equity and community prosperity. It’s an approach that supports the talents and people that exist already in our communities rather than attracting talent or importing it from outside.
Our model counteracts obstacles that have been hampering our growth. It’s about a Mountain View neighborhood cut off and isolated from Anchorage, rezoned overnight and rebuilt with low-quality, high-density housing. On a Spenard Road, the city’s former red-light district damaged by decades of disinvestment, social inequity, and concentrated poverty. Of a Fairview where a highway project decimated a neighborhood and redlining separated a community. We work in neighborhoods like these that show visible and invisible signs of systemic disinvestment. Our model is about the people who call these neighborhoods home, and who, like their neighborhoods, have been overlooked and underestimated.
For each of these obstacles, there are hundreds of entrepreneurs and business owners making a difference every day, with the drive and daring to become the leaders in their neighborhood’s next steps. Our model is about our city as it should be—a place full of opportunities for everyone, no matter where they live or what their background. When successful small businesses owned by the community populate corridors like Spenard Road, Ingra/Gambell, or Mountain View Drive, we grow wealth, create opportunity, and change trajectories for our Anchorage families.
That is the story of Missy Simms, the owner of Sweet Creations Lollipop Boutique, Mountain View’s beloved neighborhood candy shop. Missy came through our first ever training cohort of Set Up Shop and began her business out of her home, selling candy and custom sweet treats to friends and family. Demand for her candy grew, and soon Missy was selling across the city at markets and events. Once she was ready to scale, Missy launched into a brick-and-mortar retail space in the heart of Mountain View Drive. Now, her storefront is a treasured community space in the neighborhood and an example to others that businesses can grow and thrive in Mountain View.
Leap of Courage
Gene Gray’s Tatilani Restaurant in Spenard serves Polynesian favorites such as oka, poke, and taro, plus a variety of fried desserts.
We know that 64 percent of Alaska businesses were started with personal savings. But if you’re part of a community with low access to capital and few friends and family members who have the money to invest in your business or support you in lean months, that can be hard to do. That’s why only a quarter of small businesses in our state are women-owned, and only 11 percent are Black-, Indigenous-, and People of Color-owned. Even with those barriers to entry, we still meet people every day who are ambitious and eager to make the leap into business ownership.
How do we ensure entrepreneurs like Missy and Gene can succeed? It takes investment. Our staff spends every day providing training and high-touch technical assistance to help troubleshoot the challenges. Often the capital needed to start or grow is out of reach. We have created a new microloan program in partnership with Cook Inlet Lending Center to provide access to capital to early-stage businesses. These microloans of up to $50,000 are the small-scale capital that businesses often need to grow but often can’t access through traditional financing.
It also takes space to operate. ACLT has worked in real estate nearly twenty years and owns transformative properties, connects entrepreneurs to physical spaces, and invests in our neighborhood commercial corridors. With 60 percent of our Set Up Shop clients operating food-based businesses, there has been one primary limitation: Anchorage has an almost non-existent supply of affordable, available, and permitted kitchen space needed to make their products. We knew we needed to invest in new infrastructure for our hospitality industry. Thus, we are building a shared commercial kitchen that food-based businesses can rent by the hour to grow and scale.
Since Set Up Shop launched, we have been working to ensure the program serves entrepreneurs that reflect the many communities in our city, to ensure that business ownership is accessible and attainable for everyone. With the Alaska Native community representing 20 percent of our state’s population but only 3 percent of Alaska business owners, it was important to ensure small business programming was reaching the Alaska Native community. In partnership with Cook Inlet Tribal Council and Cook Inlet Lending Center, we have now launched Indigenous Peoples Set Up Shop, a line of training and programming specifically for Alaska Native and American Indian entrepreneurs. I can’t wait to see what more Alaska Native small business owners bring to our city.
Now more than ever we invite our community to join in our effort to transform our city from within. We hope you’ll frequent these businesses and show your support. If your organization or company is interested in learning more about what you can do to support neighborhood business owners, please get in touch. I send my congratulations to each of the businesses featured in this issue, and to all of the entrepreneurs and business owners who have had the courage to try. Let’s prove to them that business ownership is meant for anyone who has the courage to try.
Kirk Rose is CEO of Anchorage Community Land Trust, a nonprofit working to improve quality of life in Anchorage neighborhoods. Rose is a 2020 Alaska Top 40 Under 40 recipient as well as a 2017 Next City Vanguard. During his tenure with the organization, ACLT was awarded the National Development Council’s highest honor as the Most Innovative Community Development Project in the United States.