FORT LAUDERDALE — Sistrunk Boulevard has historically been known as the heart of the Broward County’s black business community. The street is named after Dr. James F. Sistrunk, an African-American doctor who delivered more than 5,000 babies and helped open the first black hospital in the county.
But, as integration and economic hard times hit, residents and businesses scattered. Now, the community is once again on the rise with black-owned businesses and major retailers returning to the Sistrunk area.
The Urban League of Broward County opened its headquarters two years ago at 560 NW 27th Ave., right next to the African American Research Library and Cultural Center. That location is right where the organization wanted to be, said Dr. Germaine Smith-Baugh, its president/CEO.
“We had the opportunity to be headquartered in other areas,” Smith-Baugh said. “It was a very strategic decision to be a part of the revitalizing of the area. Our mission is to work with African Americans in the achievement of economic and social equality.
“It only makes sense, given the opportunity to be located next to the African American Research Library and Cultural Center and the Rev. Samuel Delevoe Memorial Park.”
The Urban League offers GED classes and job access assistance and partners with Broward College to provide certification training, Smith-Baugh said. The league also partners with the Bank of America to provide credit repair classes. That bank also moved into the community, opening a branch last year at 570 NW Seventh Ave.
“Our customers, especially the low-income, are excited because in the past we had customers who were taking two buses to get to their bank,” said Allison Jordan, Bank of America banking center manager at the Sistrunk location. “Now they are able to walk, drive or take a bike and do business with a major bank in the vicinity.”
Residents, as well as local businesses, have conducted transactions at the bank, Jordan said.
“Our business clients are using electronic payments for customers that the bank guarantees for next-day deposit to their account,” said Jordan, adding the bank also offers payroll services and loans. “They are able to grow their business based upon the services we are providing them.”
The bank started talks with Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Bobby DuBose five years ago about opening the branch in a community with few banking options.
“In order to be a successful company, we must have successful communities that we support,” said Bernard Hampton, an area executive with the Bank of America. “It made it a natural fit for us to participate.”
DuBose, who was raised and continues to live in the Sistrunk area, has made it a mission to revitalize the community.
“Prior to integration, we were very self-sustaining and commerce was robust,” DuBose said. “The city has a history of neglecting the Northwest. I am proud of our commissioners because we came into office with the philosophy of no neighborhood left behind.”
The city has put together a business and marketing plan, as well as incentives, to aggressively pursue business development in the area, Dubose said.
A crime reduction plan is also being put in place that will help combat the stigma of crime in the area, said Dubose, who noted that there are burglaries and car break-ins. Cameras have been placed on light fixtures, a new police substation has opened and officers are walking the streets and interacting with residents, schools and business owners.
In addition, a $15 million project of streetscape and road improvements covering the Sistrunk Boulevard corridor to Federal Highway was completed a couple of years ago. The project included landscaped medians, decorative streetlights, new sidewalks and better bus shelters. It was funded through the Fort Lauderdale Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), the city, the county and the federal government.
The Bank of America branch is located in a plaza that also includes a Save-a-Lot that was opened a couple of years ago. A Jimmy John’s will be coming to the area and the city is in talks to lure a major chain restaurant as well, DuBose said.
“This area was considered a food desert,” said Dubose, noting there are other smaller grocers in the community but not a national grocer chain.
“We have Betty’s [soul food restaurant] and we have heard from residents who also want more sit-down restaurants,” DuBose said.
Smaller businesses, such as the Midtown Commerce Center, continue to contribute to the revitalization of the community, DuBose said.
The two-story, LEED practicing green building at 1033 NW Sixth St. was completed in 2010. It contains office space, an art gallery and event space and a rentable executive conference center. Tenants include a security firm, a social services organization, a graphic design and printing sales company and an entertainment and events planner.
Owner and developer Sheryl Dickey bought the land for the building from the city as part of its community development initiative to revitalize the area.
“The vision was to be a small business center, like an incubator, and a place for small events for entertainment and cultural exposure,” said Dickey, who is also president of Dickey Consulting Services Inc., a public relations, community outreach and project management company. “I wanted small businesses to flourish.”
Many of the new businesses in the community are professional services such as lawyers, accountants and information technology, said Pamela Adams, president/CEO of Adams Consulting Group and president of the Mid-Town Business Association, an organization that promotes economic development in northwest Fort Lauderdale.
“It is not just the Bank of America that is coming here,” said Adams. “It is small businesses like ourselves. We not only live here but we [also] employ people and conduct our business here.”
Burnadette Norris-Weeks was looking for a location for her self-named law firm when she purchased a building at 401 NW Seventh Ave in 2004. The building formerly housed a black-owned shoe store, which closed 15 years ago and it had become an eyesore.
A few years later, Norris-Weeks purchased the building next-door at 405 NW Seventh Ave. and created Avenue Executive, a flexible office and event space building for professionals and small businesses.
Dennis Wright, an information technology consultant, is one of the professionals whose offices are located at Avenue Executive.
“Sistrunk has always been the heart of the black entrepreneur spirit of Fort Lauderdale,” said Wright, noting he is a third-generation business owner. “Over time, the community started to change from lack of economic development.
“Leadership was focused on the beaches and downtown and development was placed in that area,” said Wright, who is also the president of the Fort Lauderdale chapter of the 100 Black Men. “New businesses and historical businesses are revitalizing the community.”
RON LYONS/CITY OF FORT LAUDERDALE
NEW LOOK : The Historic Sistrunk Boulevard has a fresh new look after a major upgrade as seen in this view looking east bound towards Northwest Ninth Avenue.