ACANA announces plan to develop 'African Center' in SW Philly

After several years in development, the first phase of a mixed-use project known as the African Center is expected to begin construction in the coming weeks.

The $23 million complex is dubbed a “beacon of cultural pride” in Africatown, a community that’s grown considerably in the past two decades.

There are an estimated 125,000 Black immigrants — most of whom hail from countries across Africa — in the Philadelphia metro area, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts analysis. Between 2000 and 2019, Philadelphia’s population of Black immigrants grew by 121%, data shows. That doesn’t even include more recent waves of migration from African nations seeking asylum.

“Philadelphia has been more welcoming to us than many other cities in the United States, now we have found our niche,” said Voffee Jabateh, founder and executive director of the Africa Cultural Alliance of North America, or ACANA.

All the entrances will face 55th Street near Chester Avenue with plans for both a retrofitted commercial space and new construction.

On the ground floor, an old dry cleaners will become a full service restaurant in addition to more retail shops. On the second floor will be the nonprofit Africa Cultural Alliance of North America’s headquarters, which offers immigration services and on the third story office space.

Behind the dry cleaners there’s a vacant lot which is slated to become a new community center which doubles as a cultural performance venue, health clinic and day care.

African-owned businesses already exist along stretches of Baltimore, Woodland, Elmwood and Chester avenues, from restaurants to retail shops and even wholesale operations.

“Southwest Philadelphia is emerging as a trading hub for all things African,” Jabateh said.

There are plans for a business assistance center and affordable apartments in the coming years.

The three-fold project is known as Dolakeh Square, which borrows its moniker from the West African language Mano and means “working together for one purpose.”

The concept for Africatown is borrowed from Center City’s Chinatown and the African Center is modeled after the Crane Community Center.

About three years ago, ACANA’s leader Jabateh met the financial architect behind the Chinatown community center — Ahsan Nasratullah, president of JNA Capital and CEO of Global City Regional Center.

Since then, the pair have worked with international investors, local and global banks in addition to securing government grants.

“We were able to raise money to purchase about half a city block,” said Ahsan Nasratullah, CEO of JNA Capital Inc. “We’re building phase one now, and over the next couple years that half a city block will become the center of social services, cultural services and economic activity.”

The African Center is being developed by JNA Capital Inc. and Fattah Capital Advisors — run by former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah — but will be owned and operated by ACANA.

There are a plethora of funding sources behind it, including a $9 million grant from the Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program; $4.5 million new markets tax credit equity investment from Capital One, made possible by $16 million in new market tax credits allocation from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation and Community First Fund; a $2.4 million grant from the City of Philadelphia Commerce Department; $2.4 million international investment through the Global City Regional Center LLC, a local EB5 regional center where individuals invest in U.S. projects for citizenship; a $2 million federal grant through the Community Project Funding program; and a $1.5 million loan from the United Bank of Philadelphia and $500,000 grant from state casino revenue.

The project uses bridge loans — money borrowed to start construction while the developers wait for grants to be awarded — then the loans are repaid. The bridge lenders include $13 million from the Reinvestment Fund for the city, state and federal grants. Beech Capital Venture Corporation handled the bridge loans for the international investor funding and the Neighborhood Progress Fund participated in the loan from United Bank.

Construction for the African Center is expected to take between 18–20 months to complete.