An architect's rendering of the main entrance at The Aux

The Aux: Leveraging the Power of Connection to Help Black-owned Businesses Thrive February 22, 2024

In a Nutshell

What: The Aux will be a commercial hub of local, Black-owned businesses and organizations in the community dedicated to healing, wellness, and racial equity. The facility, which is being co-created with the community, will include ten small business tenant spaces, five pop-up spaces for market vendors, five co-working spaces, offices and Zoom booths, outdoor gardens and green space, and a central gathering and programming space. 
Sector: Community Development  
Location: Evanston, IL 
Size: 16,500 square feet 
Cost: $10 million 
Funding Sources: State of Illinois, City of Evanston, NorthShore University HealthSystem, Goldman Sachs – Black Women Initiative, Sidley Austin, Northern Trust, private foundations, community equity 
IFF Support: $2.9 million loan closed in September 2023 
IFF Staff Lead: Brett Mueller, Director of Lending – Chicago and Northwest Indiana 
Design: Nia Architects 
General Contractor: UJAMAA Construction 
Impact: 120 construction jobs and 30 permanent, full-time jobs created 

Located on the northern border of Chicago, along the shore of Lake Michigan, and home to Northwestern University – one of the country’s leading academic institutions – Evanston, IL, is a vibrant city with no shortage of options for work, housing, education, recreation, and more. In recognition of these assets, Evanston is routinely acknowledged as one of the best places to live in the United States.  

What’s harder to discern, however, is how significant a role race plays in the quality of life for Evanston’s roughly 75,000 residents. While the median household income in Evanston is more than $93,000 per year, an average gap of more than $45,000 in annual income exists between the city’s white and Black families. So, too, is there a significant difference in health outcomes, with one study finding a difference in life expectancy of 5-13 years between Black and white Evanston residents.  

Rooted in historic inequities like redlining, these disparities are one of the driving forces behind the development of The Aux, a 16,500-square-foot facility that will serve as a hub for local, Black-owned businesses and community organizations when it opens later this year. Designed to provide Black business owners in Evanston with the infrastructure, resources, and support needed to launch and grow their businesses, The Aux will provide high-quality space for businesses and social enterprises dedicated to all aspects of physical, emotional, environmental, financial, and social wellness. 

A grassroots effort, The Aux is being developed by a small group of community members driven to strengthen the community in partnership with a local nonprofit sponsor, The Growing Season, and Fix Development, which specializes in leveraging real estate projects as a tool for social change. Fix Development previously co-developed a similar project in Milwaukee, The Sherman Phoenix, that has achieved impressive results since opening in 2018 and served as the inspiration for The Aux.  

Meet The Aux Tenants

Local, Black-owned businesses and social enterprises that will operate in The Aux include: 

  • The Laundry Café: A self-serve laundry and coffee café that will create seven full‐time and part‐time jobs, the café will also offer community programming such as human libraries, book clubs, and cultural and art activities.  
  • Chef Q’s Kitchen: A healthy food catering and café that will employ eight people while also offering healthy cooking training, career development, and gardening classes for youth and families.  
  • The Growing Season: A meditation and self-awareness studio that will offer and curate mindfulness‐based programming like body work, yoga, doula services, tai chi, and more. Employing two people, The Growing Season will also provide affordable studio space for new and emerging wellness professionals.  
  • Sunshine Enterprises: An entrepreneur incubator that will provide 30+ entrepreneurs with mentorship and coaching; serve 20-30 entrepreneurs with coworking space, private offices, and mailboxes; and support all of The Aux businesses with technical assistance.  
  • Embrace Your Crown: A salon and beauty bar that will employ 7-8 cosmetologists and estheticians and provide job training for young adults.  
  • TBF Diagnostics: Employing three people, TBF Diagnostics will offer health testing, including blood tests, DNA tests, and drug screenings, among other services that help clients better understand their health status. 
  • Studio AUX: Creating 2-3 jobs, Studio Aux will produce and support multiple podcasts, produce and record music and voice overlays, and support the audio sound system for The Aux, thus providing community members with opportunities to tell their own stories while supporting health communication and health literacy. 
  • The Aux Wellness Collective: Designed to inspire and empower practitioners on their journey to building a sustainable wellness business, the collective will include a movement studio for yoga, Zumba, tai chi, and more; offer treatment rooms/offices for therapy, massage, Reiki, and acupuncture; provide a multipurpose room for educational workshops and programming; and a wellness retail space for 12-15 entrepreneurs and artisans offering handcrafted wellness products. 
  • Smoothie Rx: Anchored in Chicago’s South Loop, Smoothie Rx will expand to its first north side location in the Aux to sell nutritious smoothies and juice drinks, in addition to wellness products in collaboration with a dozen local Black and Hispanic artisans. 
  • The Fitness Representatives: Employing 5-6 people, a gym that will also offer cognitive behavioral therapy, health and wellness coaching and retreats, vocational training for future health and wellness professionals, youth and children’s wellness programs and school curriculum, personal training, fitness classes, and more. 
  • Cielo Agave: Providing holistic therapies to address women’s health and a retail store selling wellness products in collaboration with a dozen Black and Hispanic local artisans. 
  • Sokana Collective: A group of 20+ birth workers and educators that will provide doula services while removing barriers for birth workers and families through education and service. 

“We talk equity, we talk inclusion, we talk so many things in Evanston, and this project embodies all of that and more,” says Tosha Wilson, one of the co-developers of The Aux and the co-owner of The Laundry Café, which will serve as an anchor tenant in the facility. “This project is going to help tackle racial gaps in real estate, boost the local economy, build community wealth, and enhance community health.” 

The Aux will feature two spaces for anchor tenants that will be 3,100 square feet and 3,700 square feet, respectively, and eight permanent tenant spaces for small businesses ranging in size from 500 to 3,000 square feet – all of which will be leased at affordable rates so that entrepreneurs can maximize the growth of their businesses. Though the facility isn’t scheduled to open until the end of this year, The Aux has already secured lease commitments for Wilson and co-owner/co-developer Jacqui White’s laundry and café, a healthy food catering business, a health lab, mental health services, movement and fitness classes, mindfulness and meditation offerings, a hair and beauty salon, an entrepreneurial training hub, and more (see the sidebar for details about each business planning to lease space at The Aux).  

For Black-owned businesses and social enterprises not yet ready for a permanent brick and mortar presence in the community, The Aux will offer five pop-up spaces designed to be rented for three to 12 months to serve as a launchpad for growth. Additionally, the facility will include five co-working spaces with private offices and Zoom booths, providing flexible workspace to entrepreneurs scaling their businesses. To amplify the impact of the facility, entrepreneurial training programs offered by Sunshine Enterprises will be available as a support service. Rounding out The Aux will be outdoor gardens where fresh foods will be grown, a commercial kitchen, and a central “Ikun” gathering and programming space able to accommodate up to 150 people for cultural and educational events.  

“One of the primary goals for The Aux is to remove barriers that entrepreneurs of color experience as they launch and grow their businesses,” explains co-developer Tiffini Holmes, “There’s bias in lending that negatively impacts Black business owners, and there’s less generational wealth that can be invested into those businesses because of how our families originated here and the challenges that continue to plague us today. With The Aux, we can set first and last month’s rent at a level that makes the space accessible, make connections for tenants with our banking partners to increase access to capital, and provide support that equips entrepreneurs to overcome the barriers.”  

By virtue of how the facility housing The Aux will be used, the project directly supports efforts underway in Evanston to close the racial wealth gap, but that’s only one component of the positive impact it’s anticipated to create. To fund the $10 million project, The Aux’s development team is offering ownership shares in the building to community members, who can invest between $1,000 and $50,000 in the project. Those who purchase an ownership stake will be able to vote on decisions related to The Aux and will receive a return on their investment after The Aux’s operational costs are covered. In doing so, The Aux’s development team is making real estate investing accessible to members of the community who might not otherwise have the means to invest in commercial projects. 

With a goal to raise $1.5 million for the development of The Aux from community investors, the remaining funding for the project is being provided by a mix of public sources and private philanthropic support. To date, roughly $6.5 million has been raised, with the State of Illinois, City of Evanston, NorthShore University HealthSystem, Goldman Sachs, Sidley Austin, Northern Trust, and private foundations among those supporting the development.  

“Raising $10 million for some developers may take a snap of the finger, but it’s a significant challenge for this project in this community,” says Wilson. “When we’re seeking funding that might otherwise be allotted to the south or west sides of Chicago, it’s like, ‘what do you need it for in Evanston?’ Despite the very real impact of redlining here, we’re in many ways outside the bubble of support because of our location. I didn’t expect that to be a challenge for us to the degree that it has been.” 

To enable construction to begin while the development team secured the remaining portion of the capital stack, IFF provided a $2.9 million bridge loan for the project to The Growing Season, whose founder and CEO, Lori Laser, is a core member of The Aux’s development team.  

In line with the goals for The Aux, the design of the facility was led by Nia Architects, while construction has been tasked to UJAMAA Construction. Both firms are Chicago-based, Black-owned businesses, and each has committed to exceeding 50 percent participation on the project by women- and minority-owned enterprises by the time construction is completed. Doing so will ensure that the project supports quality local jobs for BIPOC subcontractors and vendors, further chipping away at the racial wealth gap in Evanston.  

“This is going to be a beautiful, sustainable building that achieves a quadruple bottom line for cultural, social, economic, and environmental impact.”

After beginning construction in November, the project team is now busy converting the facility that will house The Aux from a long-vacant factory where vegetables were once processed into a high-quality community asset. By reactivating the dormant property and recycling building materials, when possible, the project is returning an unusable facility to productive use while maximizing the positive environmental impact of the renovated space.  

“We’re adapting and repurposing a building that wasn’t usable anymore that’s located in a dense neighborhood that’s walkable, bikeable, and accessible by public transportation,” explains Juli Kaufmann, president of Fix Development. “We’re using existing pieces and parts of the building wherever we can to minimize waste, and we’re also making modifications to minimize The Aux’s impact on stormwater runoff. We need to raise the rest of the money needed to fully develop the property, but we’re also looking at additions like solar panels as possibilities in the future. This is going to be a beautiful, sustainable building that achieves a quadruple bottom line for cultural, social, economic, and environmental impact. 

Read about additional community-strengthening projects in Illinois financed by IFF