Philadelphia offering unused rec center space to entrepreneurs

Applications are now open to participate in the program, which also offers a grant to outfit the space.

Emma Lee/WHYY

Rec centers in Philadelphia may soon play host to local startups and creative small businesses, thanks to a new city program launching today.

Called “Making Space: Reimagining Recreation,” the initiative offers local entrepreneurs the chance to apply for a free, “business-ready” space in rooms that currently sit empty, per the program website. Selected applicants will get a year’s lease and a grant to properly outfit the space.

In exchange, participants are expected to give back to the community by offering educational programming and youth mentorship.

“Making Space will transform some rec centers into the nexus of community space, small business development, and hands-on life skills for youth,” Parks Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said.

The city has 150+ rec centers, and not all of them fill every single room with programming, per a press release. So the idea behind the program is to fill the spaces with local creatives, entrepreneurs, and small business owners.

That could mean seeing the rooms transformed into anything from a recording studio or general office space to a barber shop or cosmetology studio.

It’s coming together thanks to a partnership between Parks and Rec and the local creative incubator REC Philly. The Knight Foundation is funding the program with grants between $25,000 to $75,000 to properly outfit each space, and the city’s Department of Commerce will be providing technical training, mentorship, and coaching to the businesses.

Anyone interested can apply for consideration in the first round by Oct. 7, and applicants can submit more than one business idea — either something that already exists or something totally new.

The city plans to select a group of finalists in November and the ultimate winners in April.

Most spaces are described as between 250 and 750 square feet, with “basic amenities” like WiFi, heating, and cooling. The ultimate locations will depend on the applications that are submitted, said Parks & Rec spokesperson Charlotte Merrick.

The license agreements will be a year long, with three more potential renewal terms if both the city and entrepreneur agree to them. A longer term for the license agreement would require a City Council ordinance, per the program’s online FAQ.

Plans call for selecting up to 10 finalists and up to four winners, Merrick said. The finalists who don’t win won’t get the free operating space, but they’ll get business coaching, consulting courses, and $1,500 in cash to pursue their business idea.

An advisory committee made up of local arts leaders, business leaders, and elected officials will help choose the winners, per the program website. They’ll score ideas based on program thoughtfulness, community value, feasibility, past work of the applicant, and how good a fit the applicant is for the program. They’ll also assign additional points if the entrepreneur is a Philadelphia resident or from a disadvantaged group.

In exchange for the space, the entrepreneurs will have to give back to the community by running some sort of public programming, part of which should involve mentorship and business exposure for tweens, teens, and/or young adults in the community.

That could include helping young people learn how to run a business, teaching skills specific to the entrepreneur’s industry, hosting product design workshops, or coaching youth in general work readiness skills.

Per the Making Space website, the hope is for businesses and their accompanying community programming to launch out of the rec center spaces “no later than December 2023.”

Parks and Rec is accepting questions about the application process at [email protected] through Aug. 30.

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