Building “an ecosystem of solutions” on the east side

New city, state funding for CAP 1908 will allow for acquisition of two adjacent buildings

A year from now, Dominic Watson expects to open a shared kitchen and culinary incubator for dozens of emerging minority-owned businesses in a 30,000-square-foot building at 11th Street and South Grand Avenue East.

A year or two after that, his plans call for the former South Town Theater building – on the same block on Springfield’s east side – to become a performing arts center and offer early childhood and afterschool programs rooted in the arts.

“One of our larger missions for this location has been to build an ecosystem of solutions to address a lot of the socioeconomic challenges that exist, not just in Springfield as a whole, but nationally, for underserved populations,” Watson told Illinois Times.

click to enlarge Building “an ecosystem of solutions” on the east side
Dominic Watson, executive director of The Springfield Project and president of the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce, has spearheaded development of Community Assess Project 1908 on the city's east side.

The goals Watson outlined as president of The Springfield Project got a big boost when the Springfield City Council on March 5 approved a $500,000 allocation to the nonprofit from the Far East Tax Increment Financing District.

Most of the money will be used by The Springfield Project to buy the former Madison Furniture building at 1104 South Grand Avenue E., as well as the adjacent former theater, now used as a stained-glass studio and sales location, at 1110 South Grand Ave.

Some of the funds, generated from property tax revenue from the TIF district, will be used for consulting work to plan for future phases of what is known as CAP 1908, which stands for Springfield Project’s Community Access Project.

Watson said the building purchases are key for the future second and third phases of CAP 1908. The title harkens back to the year of the Springfield Race Riot and is signified by a mural on the western exterior wall of 1100 South Grand that depicts an Sankofa bird – an African symbol – rising and overcoming adversity.

CAP 1908, according to Watson, is a “comprehensive redevelopment plan” with three major areas of focus.

The first, a social innovation center and co-working area for minority entrepreneurs and business-related programming for young people, opened in 2023 at 1100 South Grand Ave.

That building was purchased with a $179,000 federal block grant allocated by the City Council in 2022 and furnished largely with donated materials, along with a $40,000 donation from Molina Healthcare of Illinois.

The center already has begun offering free financial literacy classes and rented office space on the 10,000 square foot first floor. The development of more rental office space is planned this spring, Watson said.
                A smaller area on the second floor soon will provide office space for one of the Springfield Police Department’s neighborhood police officers and Lynard Joiner’s nonprofit, Shifting Into New Gear, to help formerly incarcerated people successfully transition after release from prison.

“We’re all about capacity-building for other organizations and also providing programming for underserved populations, as well,” said Watson, who also serves as president of the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce.

The second phase, the culinary incubator and space for entrepreneurs to use for podcasting and other tech-based services, will be on the first floor of the 30,000-square-foot former furniture store at 1104 South Grand.

The second floor of that building will house office space and areas for tele-health services offered by health care organizations.

Watson said the building will be renovated with a $1.6 million federal grant secured by U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski, D-Springfield. The grant was part of $136 million in funding for the 13th Congressional District that was included in a bipartisan government funding bill recently signed into law by President Joe Biden.

The culinary incubator will help many struggling entrepreneurs scale up their businesses, Watson said.

“We know of 50 cottage kitchen entrepreneurs who are minorities,” he said.

CAP 1908, in the long term, will spur economic activity and increased property values on the east side and increased property tax revenues for the city, he said. The Springfield Project will not seek property tax exemptions for the Grand Avenue East buildings, he said.

The third phase of CAP 1908, the performing arts center and space for a Head Start-like early childhood education program and afterschool activities, would require about $2 million in renovations to the two-story, 10,000-square-foot former theater building, Watson said.

A source of funding for the third phase hasn’t been identified, but he said some money could come from the $3 million being made available through future grants from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for the recent state-designated Southtown Cultural District.

The state unveiled 10 cultural districts in Chicago, Champaign and Springfield in February. The Springfield Project is the host entity for the Southtown Cultural District. The Springfield Urban League is the host entity for Springfield’s Central East Cultural District.

“Bringing state-designated cultural districts to Springfield is a monumental step in the right direction for the community and the state,” state Sen. Doris Turner, D-Springfield, said in a news release. "These official designations are essential to preserving the history of our state, highlighting the legacy and significant contributions of Black Illinoisans from the Great Migration and onward."

The Springfield Project has four full-time and three part-time employees and will need more as CAP 1908 is built out, Watson said.

The 39-year-old married father of six isn’t paid as president of The Springfield Project or the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce and works another full-time job.

Springfield Project’s current employees are paid through a three-year grant from state adult-use cannabis tax revenue that ends in June 2025.

“Our model has been slow and steady wins the race,” Watson said, “and so we are very much focused on not growing too big too fast. I would say that we’ve been extremely successful, given the initial investment we were given by the city.”

The City Council’s 10-0 vote to grant the $500,000 in TIF funding came after some heated debate. The council decided to provide most of the TIF money up front rather than its previous practice of requiring an organization to finance purchases and improvements and then requesting reimbursement from the city.

Watson asked for the money ahead of time to avoid financing charges, but during debate on the request, that option was opposed by alderpersons Chuck Redpath of Ward 1, Erin Conley of Ward 8 and Ralph Hanauer of Ward 10.

Conley said CAP 1908 is “an admirable project,” but she wanted city staff to check how other communities safeguard TIF dollars from abuse before the city “makes this type of exception.”

However, all opposition evaporated when Mayor Misty Buscher – whose candidacy was supported in the April 2023 election by the three alderpersons – suggested the council deviate from its usual past practice in this instance.

Conley told Buscher, “It’s your administration,” as she withdrew her opposition.

Ward 3 Ald. Roy Williams Jr., a supporter of the project and an occasional critic of Buscher, said later that the mayor “raised the magic wand” to ensure a successful vote from alderpersons.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Our council – that’s how they operate. They don’t have true convictions. … In my opinion, that’s strictly political.”

Ward 2 Ald. Shawn Gregory, in whose ward CAP 1908 sits, said he was relieved after the vote that CAP 1908 wouldn’t have to endure funding delays and additional costs.

“It shows our community that there are people in government who are thinking about our community,” he said. “This is the poorest area of our entire city. … We are going to see some fantastic things.”

Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer at Illinois Times. He can be reached at 217-679-7810, [email protected] or

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