Neighbor Helping Neighbor

Albers students work with community business owners and residents to plan for future development

Written by Annie Beckmann
Photography by Chris Joseph Taylor
September 6, 2013
Earl Lancaster has been cutting hair at the corner of 23rd Avenue and East Union Street since he was a teenager. He’s a fixture in a neighborhood that’s primed for big changes.

Often dubbed the “Mayor of 23rd and Union,” Lancaster stands tall, an impressive figure with long locks and a full salt-and-pepper beard. He grew up 10 blocks from here and in 1992 opened his own barbershop, Earl’s Cuts & Styles.

Earl’s is more than a place to get a haircut. Some customers consider it a meeting spot and pop by to play chess, check out a sports score on the TV or catch up with neighborhood goings-on. Lancaster’s renowned for attracting big-name athletes as customers over the years. Cameron Dollar, Seattle University’s men’s basketball coach, is a regular along with pro players Taylor Mays and Martell Webster. The walls of the barbershop are filled with framed jerseys from several high-profile clients, including local basketball and football greats Gary Payton, Brandon Roy, Jamal Crawford and Jason Terry. Some Saturdays, the line for a haircut is out the door.

Lancaster doesn’t want his barbershop to lose its distinctive character and neighborhood vibe. He’s not alone. Merchants and residents in this Central District neighborhood recognize that revitalization is well on its way. In a vacant lot on the southwest corner of 23rd and Union, construction was expected to begin in August on a six-story, 92-unit apartment building with 4,000 square feet of retail space.

Across the street, community members speculate on the fate of a fountain created by the late African American sculptor and painter James Washington, whose neighborhood home and studio is a designated landmark. Residents are also eager to know if they’ll be able to coax Helen Coleman, who operated a popular soul food restaurant here, out of retirement and back into business with help from her family and friends.

As the contours and character of change continue to give rise to new issues, ,SU’s student-run club Enactus (formerly Students in Free Enterprise, or SIFE) enters the picture with its small business consulting services to help with what’s ahead for 23rd and Union. Enactus President Timothy O’Reilly, ’14, says the club was drawn to the project by Tom Bangasser, ’67, ’82, and his brother Hugh, ’68, whose family has owned 2½ acres of commercial property on the southeast corner of 23rd and Union since 1941.

Last spring Enactus started to coordinate an initiative using the activities of undergraduate and graduate management classes in the Albers School of Business and Economics. The goal is to give community leaders and businesses the tools and strategies to help in the evolution of their neighborhood. Called “Union Street 98122,” the initiative’s vision is a thriving and sustainable multicultural neighborhood.

A big part of the initiative is the Union Street Business Association (USBA), a neighborhood-based nonprofit leadership organization established with help from SU MBA students. The USBA encompasses residents as well as merchants and is designed to become the driving force for a diverse neighborhood. A website that brands the area with a distinct identity voiced by residents is in the making as are workshops and other consultation services for business owners. The USBA also is exploring ways to acquire neighborhood properties currently leased by businesses in an effort to create local ownership.  

Developing a working framework for the USBA was a project MBA student Jason Lee, ’14, especially enjoyed.

“This is an organization that will be able to succeed year after year. To have some impact to help them along the way, that in itself has been rewarding,” says Lee.

In community meetings hosted by Casey Family Programs last spring, MBA students asked residents and merchants what it means to be a thriving and sustainable neighborhood, what retail goods and services they want to see, how they get—and want to get—their neighborhood news and information and what other topics they feel the community should consider going forward.

At the first of the community meetings, Edward Hill, an urban planner who lives in the neighborhood, said that while there’s little argument residents want the likes of bakeries, small businesses and parks in the area, they don’t want big-box retailers, chain stores and giant apartment towers, adding, “We have very little time to get this straight if we don’t want to become another Pike/Pine corridor.”

O’Reilly is pleased with the wide participation in the Enactus project.

“Engaging our university in the neighborhood benefits students, faculty and community members alike. It is an amazing opportunity for experiential education and transforming a neighborhood into a thriving and vibrant community,” he says.

SU MBA students continue to be instrumental in helping the neighborhood develop its vision and assisting with the creation of the USBA. Undergraduate students are hammering out business plans for some of the existing 23rd and Union merchants so the impact of higher rents in a new development won’t force them to leave. Earl’s Cuts & Styles is among them.

“Change is good. There are going to be more people around here,” says Lancaster as he trims a bank manager’s hair and nods in the direction of traffic out the window. Even now, an estimated 30,000 vehicles pass through the intersection of 23rd and Union each week.

Lancaster and his staffers C. Black and Stuart Reed are uncertain what the future holds. They hope any redevelopment will include an opportunity to return to this corner.

“As long as I’ve been here, I know everybody. I’d be willing to move to a new location temporarily, but I love this neighborhood and I like this corner,” says Lancaster.

Meeting with SU undergraduate students weekly, Lancaster says he’s becoming more knowledgeable about the organization of his business. He has new strategies for increasing clientele and sees how adding to his services and products also could improve revenue. O’Reilly says Enactus will continue its involvement at 23rd and Union for the long haul.

“The Enactus role is more focused on sustainability and how we can help them implement the business model and ensure that the USBA has a successful and profitable future,” he says.

Robert Spencer, adjunct management faculty, is gratified by the work of a student team from his spring quarter MBA course, New Ventures Consulting. That team was tasked with engaging the community in the revitalization effort.

“There couldn’t be a better example of the stewardship capabilities of our students,” says Spencer. “They have the ability to apply their knowledge in ways that help people in this neighborhood get a voice and sort out their destiny. Profound issues are at stake here—people’s homes and at times even their sense of heritage. Yet our students are helping the community find its own way, not showing them their way.”

Property owners Hugh and Tom Bangasser agree. Both point to how their Jesuit education played a role in their efforts to bring SU into conversation with community members.

“The old maxim, ‘think globally; act locally’ applies here. We are trying to formulate practical solutions to concrete local problems and to provide opportunities to the underserved right here in this transitioning neighborhood,” says Hugh.

Adds Tom, “Businesses that last, like Earl’s, have a passion and when they lose that passion, they sell the business. We want to create a sense of a neighborhood where people help each other.”


Enactus in Action

Seattle University’s Enactus chapter, a student-led club operated through the Albers School of Business and Economics, lives by its mission statement: “improving the quality of life for those in need through economic development.” Formerly Students in Free Enterprise, or SIFE, Enactus works on several sustainable projects throughout the year and develops new ones and new approaches regularly. The projects respond to an identified need such as helping the homeless or working with community businesses to develop operation or marketing plans, for example.

“I go to Enactus meetings excited because we are doing things,” says team president Timothy O’Reilly. “The experiential aspect of Enactus is integral to my SU education.”

For the past several years the team has earned a spot at the national competition where they have made an impact for their presentations of their projects.

These projects, in addition to the work with 23rd and Union, include:

—Feeding the Homeless: Oversee donation drives to collect food and goods for the city’s homeless. Within the past year the team collected more than 12,000 pounds of canned food and informed homeless youth and adults about resources available to them including locations of shelters.

—Career Summit: Organized and hosted a career fair for the homeless, military veterans and others in search of professional development, networking and job opportunities. Through this project, members of the Enactus team put prospective employers in touch with job seekers and even set up interviews during the summit, resulting in employment offers.

—Ghanaian Empowerment: Team members worked with high school students from the Seattle area in providing computer training to schools and business owners in Ghana, while also providing the latter with small business consultation and training. Partnered with companies and organizations including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, GE, Microsoft and Rotary International.

—Redeeming Soles: In partnership with Scott Sowle and the Union Gospel Mission, among others, Enactus members helped collect shoes and socks for the homeless and the poor in the greater Seattle area. With the involvement of Enactus, 50,000 pairs of shoes have been collected for Redeeming Soles.

Bangassers Brothers and alums Tom and Hugh Bangasser (left and far right) with Albers student Timothy O'Reilly and Earl Lancaster at 23rd and Union.
Barber Earl Lancaster (far right) chats with men's basketball coach Cameron Dollar and his children.