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In a fast-growing city like Charlotte, communities on the margin can sometimes get left behind. That’s where LISC Charlotte comes in.

In less than three years, LISC Charlotte has invested more than $43 million to improve conditions in some of the city’s underserved communities.

When Covid-19 arrived, LISC mobilized to assist small businesses hurt by the pandemic. That aim was focused specifically on businesses in Charlotte’s Historic West End and those owned by women and minorities.

LISC Charlotte disbursed nearly $4 million in Covid assistance, with 95% going to business owners of color and nearly 70% going to women business owners. 

Cuzzo’s Cuisine, a popular restaurant known for its lobster mac and cheese, was a recipient of that LISC Charlotte assistance.

Andarrio Johnson and his team at Cuzzo’s Cuisine prepare to cut the ribbon on the restaurant’s newest location in the University City neighborhood.

With financial assistance from LISC, owner Andarrio Johnson said he was able to keep his doors open, even as the pandemic raged. Then, just a few weeks ago, Johnson opened a second Cuzzo’s location — this time with a low-interest loan through LISC.

“I had to start all over from scratch over here,” Johnson said of the new restaurant, which opened in University City. “The loan gave me a little leeway to help me get started and buy new equipment and do construction, so that helped out a lot.”

Ralphine Caldwell, executive director of LISC Charlotte, said the organization’s work with Cuzzo’s Cusine is typical of the LISC mission.

“LISC invests in ways that tap into Charlotte’s strength, so we can improve the overall quality of life for thousands of residents,” Caldwell said.

Since opening in March 2019, LISC Charlotte has been especially active in the Historic West End communities.

“One neighborhood at a time,” Caldwell said, is how LISC Charlotte implements its community development strategy.

Ralphine Caldwell, second from right, which members of the LISC Charlotte team at the People’s Porch at West Side Community Land Trust. Photo: Media Arts Collective.

Helping communities

LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation) operates in 38 U.S. cities and has a rural footprint throughout the nation. Its primary focus is on economic development.

LISC Charlotte works with local governments, large corporations, community development organizations and other nonprofits to revitalize neighborhoods and nurture economic growth and opportunity. 

Last fall, Fifth Third Bank announced that it would give $20 million to further LISC Charlotte’s work along the Beatties Ford Road corridor.

LISC Charlotte also administers the $50 million Charlotte Housing Opportunity Investment Fund, which invests in affordable housing for families making 30% to 120% of the area’s median income.

Less known, perhaps, is the work that LISC Charlotte does to elevate Black- and minority-owned businesses.

In the Five Points area, it helped Sankofa Partners secure a low-interest loan it needed to close a funding gap. The company had bought and renovated a small retail strip near Five Points Plaza and Johnson C. Smith University. The building provides rental space for three minority shop owners.

Dianna Ward, Sankofa’s managing partner, said the project is an example of what can be accomplished when organizations like LISC, the Knight Foundation and the city of Charlotte partner with Black-led organizations.

“Most people thought that it would be very difficult to revitalize the Historic West End neighborhood,” she said, “but we’re proving that…we can get this important work done faster and smarter.”

Cuzzo’s Cuisine

Andarrio Johnson inside the Cuzzo’s Cuisine food truck in Historic West End. (Photo: Media Arts Collective)

On a recent afternoon in the University City area, the new Cuzzo’s Cuisine restaurant was doing a steady business, serving a mix of take-out and dine-in customers. Its original location, in west Charlotte’s Enderly Park neighborhood, is on Tuckaseegee Road.

Johnson said his goals is to bring quality food and new flavors to Charlotte’s Black communities. LISC Charlotte’s goal is to see the business thrive.

In addition to financial help, LISC has connected Johnson with technical and business support.

“What our goal is and has been in these past two years is to continue to support small businesses so that they can survive after the pandemic,” Caldwell said.

As change comes to west Charlotte, Caldwell said LISC will be working with groups such as Historic West End Partners to ensure that longtime residents are beneficiaries of that change.

She pointed to historic west Charlotte institutions such as the Excelsior Club, where Nat King Cole and other great musicians once performed, and to Johnson C. Smith University, one of the oldest historically Black colleges in the nation.

“What we want to do now with Historic West End is maintain the history,” Caldwell said. “We’re okay with change, but we’re okay with changes that allow the current residents to stay in their homes and stay in their community and be able to have a community that’s thriving.”

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