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New Columbia gets to work

TRIBTOWN: Commerce and community build at months-old cafe, grocery
by: L.E. BASKOW, After considering other locations in the city, Eleza Faison opened her third AJ Java at New Columbia earlier this year, saying, “There’s plenty of opportunity in North Portland that’s not visualized by corporations.” With business under way, she – like Big City Produce’s Hugh Gray – plans to offer jobs to older kids who live at New Columbia.

Opening a business in New Columbia has been a lesson in community building for Hugh Gray, owner of Big City Produce.

He opened his second branch in New Columbia in mid-November. His convenience-style store specializes in locally grown fruits and vegetables, such as fresh greens, okra, ham hocks and black-eyed peas.

'I want to make sure people have access to good, nutritious food,' he said.

But Gray was shocked during the first few months of business when the candy went flying off the shelves and the produce languished.

At his other store, which opened 10 years ago on North Albina Street, Gray says 70 percent of his sales are produce.

'I've always had the philosophy that you can't tell people what to buy, you just have to make it available to them,' he said.

Still, Gray was concerned enough to get permission from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to teach free cooking classes in his store after-hours.

The classes will begin in April. Gray intends to teach residents the basics of cooking fruits and vegetables and how to prepare simple, quick meals. He also has rounded up some volunteers to teach Hispanic and African cooking styles.

Gray also plans to buy produce from the Janus Youth Group, which has a large plot in one of New Columbia's two community gardens.

It's this kind of community involvement that officials at the Housing Authority of Portland were looking for when they offered two businesses low-interest loans to open in New Columbia.

'They are really into community building and helping families,' said John Keating, the housing authority's assistant director for community building.

The other business owner is Eleza Faison, who opened her third location of AJ Java at New Columbia in early January. There, she serves typical coffee shop fare including hot and cold drinks, baked goods and sandwiches.

Her small shop is furnished with a large couch and chair, gas fireplace, tall tables and three community computers.

'My vision is for a place for neighbors to use to escape from work or home,' she said.

Opportunity knocks here, too

Faison says she had offers to open up a third coffee shop in trendier areas of the city, such as Multnomah Village, the waterfront downtown and Southeast Portland. But born and raised in North Portland, Faison decided to stick with what she knows.

'I think there's plenty of opportunity in North Portland that's not visualized by corporations,' Faison said. 'I want to be a catalyst for that.'

To open her newest location, Faison received a $50,000 low-interest loan from a small business fund created by the Portland Development Commission, the Portland Family of Funds and the mayor's office.

Funds come through the New Markets Tax Credit, a federal program created in 2000 that encourages investment in low-income communities.

Gray, on the other hand, did not get a business loan but instead mortgaged his home to finance the new convenience store.

Both business owners are leasing space from the housing authority. They are the only two businesses in New Columbia and, currently, there is neither room nor plans for any others.

Now that business is humming along for Faison and Gray, they are going to start offering jobs to older kids who live at New Columbia. The housing authority is organizing a grant program with Open Meadows, a nearby alternative high school, for youth employment.

'We're going to employ kids at real wages,' Keating said.

Between Big City Produce, AJ Java and the housing authority's property management office, there will be eight part-time jobs available for teens this summer.

Diversions offset deviation

Keeping kids busy this summer is a major focus for the housing authority, which estimates 700 children live at New Columbia. Last summer housing authority officials learned a hard lesson about the need to keep kids occupied.

'We had some incidents,' said the housing authority's executive director, Steve Rudman, who describes them as including fights, domestic violence and graffiti. There also was trouble with nonresidents hanging out in the neighborhood, he said.

'Last summer was crazy,' said Stacey Noem, a homeowner at New Columbia. 'The sun comes out, and kids are everywhere.'

This summer, Keating is planning dozens of activities for the younger kids, including swimming at nearby Columbia pool, environmental education camps and bowling.

He's also relying heavily on the Boys and Girls Club to keep kids occupied - the new facility is scheduled to open the day after public school ends for the summer.

The older kids are harder to occupy, and Keating said what they really need are jobs.

'The biggest challenge for this business so far is handling the kids,' Faison said. 'They come in and test my employees and see how deviant they can be.'

Faison is looking for her own funds to start an apprenticeship program to teach neighborhood kids how to roast coffee at her facility on Northeast 42nd Avenue.

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