EAST TAMPA — On a recent Thursday night, a large crowd gathered at the Tampa Hillsborough Action Plan’s warehouse on its sprawling East Tampa campus.
Inside, about 200 people, mostly business professionals, bustled about, sampling hors d’oeuvres from catering companies, exchanging business cards, chatting around standing tables. Later, VoltAir Consulting Engineers CEO Julius Davis talked about branding and other entrepreneurship topics.
The nonprofit organization houses a business incubator called THAP 5508 CoWorking and Collaboration Exchange that consists of about 31 budding ventures, so networking events aren’t generally a big deal. But six months ago, it was unclear if the nonprofit would remain in operation.
The THAP board ousted longtime CEO Jeanette Bradley last fall after it learned that the 31-year-old organization was spending $40,000 to $55,000 a month, and that money set aside in investment funds was being used to support programs.
Bradley — who was a consultant to the nonprofit before formally joining as director in 2013 — blamed lackluster fundraising on the board, saying it failed to do its part to raise money as required in the nonprofit’s bylaws and rebuffed her fundraising ideas. She has since revived her own membership-based nonprofit, What We Could Be Exchange, Inc.
The Action Plan now is led by interim director Derrick Blue, who was the executive director of the organization’s Coastal Bay Properties, which offers home retrofitting and weatherization programs.
While a search is on for a permanent director, THAP board chair Liverno Williams said Blue’s leadership is what the organization needed at such a crucial time.
Blue offers a "hands-on" approach and a communication style that vibes well with board members, he said.
"Not only do I see a difference, I feel a difference," Williams said. "The way (Blue) does business, he doesn’t leave any room for questioning."
Since taking over, Blue has made some noticeable changes to the organization including a revamping of its website, adding more restrooms to the campus and upgrading the signage. There’s also been a lot of changes done behind the scenes, including a staff reorganization and some layoffs.
All of it was done to return the Action Plan back to its original purpose of providing a haven in East Tampa where businesses could launch and thrive, Blue said.
"If we’re not helping those entrepreneurs, we’re not doing our jobs," he said.
Founded in 1987 by local civil rights activist James Hammond, the Action Plan supports a number of initiatives in the areas of health care, housing, and entrepreneurship.
The entrepreneurship component consists of the 5508 CoWorking and Collaboration Exchange, a shared work space and business incubator program that’s part of the nonprofit’s mission to support economic development and create a culture of entrepreneurship in low-income areas of East Tampa.
Created from a former storage center, the five-acre property houses about 30 businesses including a coffee shop and law offices and features a 10,000 square-foot events hub that has hosted networking and entertainment events.
Events help draw in more attention to the nonprofit, but they can’t substitute for sustainable revenue sources, which continue to elude the organization, said Albert Lee, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corporation, which hosted the networking event.
"That’s Derrick’s challenge right now," he said.
Blue said he is focused on just that and recognizes that renting out the warehouse and courtyard for events can only go so far.
"If there’s no money, there’s no mission," he said. "Everybody is doing more."
As the organization has grown, so has its needs and the needs of the businesses in the incubator program, he said.
There’s been a re-evaluation of 5508’s policies and practices and that has resulted in some businesses moving on because owners needed larger quarters or couldn’t meet the financial requirements of running a business.
Blue said the changes he’s implemented came at the request of business owners following a meeting with them in the weeks after he took over.
"We still have a long way to go," he said. "But if you make a promise, you keep a promise. We’re trying to do that and stay consistent."
Contact Kenya Woodard at [email protected]