Wakeup Everybody!

Music mogul kenneth gamble is leading the charge to clean up the ghetto

Universal Cos.

  • Universal Business Support Center, designed to foster business development within South Central Philadelphia. Some 40 businesses are enrolled in the center.
  • Universal Retail Cos., which operates two convenience stores, a barbershop, and several other locations under construction in South Central Philadelphia.
  • Universal Construction Co., the firm that manages the construction and contracting for the parent company.
  • Universal Education Management Co., which manages the Universal Institute Charter School in addition to three South Philadelphia public schools, totaling 2,500 students.
  • Universal Capital Investment Fund, a community development financial institution (CDFI) that has raised $300,000 to provide small loans and equity investment to businesses associated with the business support center. Universal hopes to expand the fund to $1 million over the next year.
  • The company’s operations also include a technology center to teach area residents about the benefits of technology, as well as a medical center, a housing facility for abused women, and a drug and alcohol program. All of these programs and businesses have a common theme. They address issues that cause, or are the result of, a shattered local economy. “It’s not enough to deal with the symptoms,” says Abdur-Rahim Islam, president and CEO of Universal. “We have to deal with the root cause–education and economics. Too long we’ve been saying we should do this and do that, but where’s the model? So we’re working on developing the model and hope it can be replicated.”

    The first step in the Universal plan was to map out the area in which its redevelopment efforts would focus and conduct detailed studies. “We marked off an area of territory that’s maybe 14 to 15 blocks,” explains Gamble, who says in that area there are close to 100,000 people, 98,000 of whom are African American. “The businesses total maybe 1,500 to 2,000, and about one-half of 1% are owned by African Americans. These are the areas where Universal is concentrating.”

    Universal’s housing redevelopment plan has shown the most dramatic results. Clusters of newly renovated, brick-face townhouses stand amid abandoned tenements like an oasis in a desert. Universal finds vacant lots or abandoned buildings and either purchases them from the owners or receives them gratis from the city. Afterward, Universal Construction Co. solicits contractors–in some cases manages them to form a joint venture–then renovates the properties and either sells or leases them. For commercial property, Universal rents locations to other businesses or opens its own business under the Universal umbrella. Total investments to date exceed $100 million.

    Redeveloped three-bedroom homes typically rent for between $500 and $750 a month. Houses can be purchased for anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000. The hope is that as Universal creates affordable housing and jobs, while educating the masses, many of the other social issues will resolve themselves. During an afternoon tour of Universal’s operations, Islam stops his minivan and points to a row of newly developed homes on the corner on 16th and Federal streets. “This was the hottest drug corner in the city and it doesn’t exist anymore,” he says passionately. “Did we do a

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