The Five Points Business Improvement District has a new board chair. Haroun Cowans clinched the seat last week.
Cowans grew up in east Denver, and his professional life has revolved around the neighborhood for years. He was part of the development group attempting to renovate the historic Rossonian Hotel starting in 2018 but is currently not affiliated with the project. He now runs Goshen Development, which aims to build attainably priced housing in the city, and works with Agave Shore, a taco joint on Welton Street – that affiliation has allowed him to sit on, and now lead, the BID’s board.
We spoke with Cowans at a time when Welton is going through some difficult transitions. Coffee at the Point, a longtime meeting spot in the neighborhood’s heart, closed permanently this month. Welton Street Cafe, the long-running soul food spot, closed last year with the promise of reopening further down the corridor. Customers are still waiting for its return.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
KB: Congrats on becoming the BID chair. Let’s just start with, like, what does that mean?
HC: The Five Points BID is the Business Improvement District, so it’s the oversight of some of the activities, representing the businesses and also steering, you know, what are things that are valuable to the businesses on the corridor? That leads to the overall community.
KB: What is your pitch for what you want to do in this role?
HC: I think it really is just continuing to activate and cultivate things that are going to create a better environment for our businesses, right? I think it’s very important that an environment is created so that businesses not only exist, but they thrive in the corridor. Five Points has been known, historically – I’ll just say – I know we always talk about the music, but I think it’s most important to talk about the ingenuity, the entrepreneurship that Five Points should be known for. Especially in the historical context of the African American community that was there, and basically redlined in, but they created an environment where businesses were serving the community. It was a very active corridor, and I think if we are going to recapture that same vibrancy, we need to create an environment where businesses can not only start, but they thrive.
KB: To put a fine point on it, Black-owned businesses too, right?
HC: Yeah, specifically Black-owned businesses. I mean, you can’t celebrate and champion a neighborhood that has a historical context and – I say this often – create a museum where we say, ‘Yeah, this was a place where Black businesses thrived.’ That should be the DNA today. It should be: This was was a place that Black businesses thrived, and we build off of that. We are benefactors of that history. And so I think it is highly important that it recaptures that for Black businesses, but also for the region. We don’t have this same story in our region, and we need to make sure and ensure that there’s the retention of the cultural heritage, but also the activation that all people can come in and enjoy, experience and also talk about because I think the diverse cultures that our city has and needs, they need to be highlighted. It is a part of what makes our different neighborhoods special. And so, I think that Black businesses should be definitely thriving in Five Points along with other businesses. And there should be a special emphasis on making that happen.
KB: You told me a story recently about somebody looking for some place to eat on the street. Would you mind telling that again?
HC: I was downtown, I was coming off of 14th and turning up on Welton, and there’s not a double turn there. And a gentleman did a double turn, and he almost slid into me. But he stopped me, he rolled down his window and he asked me, ‘Where are some of the Black eateries here? … Can I follow you?’ So we came down Welton, and as I began to cross Park Avenue, I was reminded: Wait a minute, some of the staples that I was used to coming to bring folks to for business meetings, they were not open.
That was really challenging, because there was maybe one place that was open and the rest of the other businesses either were out of business or not open. And so I think it is very important for us to create a community where it has around-the-clock activity. The diversity of the offerings are very important. And the most challenging thing is to see businesses not operating. For example, Coffee at the Point has closed. And there’s several other businesses that are not the corridor and not operating yet. One of them is looking to open sometime this year – they’re not operating right now – but it’s a favorite of many, Welton Street Cafe.
KB: I know you grew up nearby, not necessarily right on the Welton Corridor, but close enough. And I wonder if that experience, that realization, ‘I have nowhere to take this person,’ how that sat with you?
HC: Especially in the ’90s and the early 2000s, you still had businesses that were operating during the day. I opened a business in 1997, there on the corner of 26th and Welton. There were still businesses here, and there was activity here. You know, it was notably known for crime and things of that nature, but there still was businesses on the corridor. And when I came back to run the U.S. Bank Branch, from 2005 to 2008, definitely there was a coffee shop, there was Blackberry’s right across the way, and a number of other opportunities to buy, sit down during the day and eat or have coffee. Those offerings were there.
We’re here in 2023, and we should not only have these offerings, but it should be even more vibrant than it was in the ’90s when we had struggles. So I think there’s an opportunity now to reinvigorate that spirit. And then also, what supports and infrastructures are needed to ensure that this neighborhood can thrive with its highest potential? There’s a lot of potential. I’m proud of the businesses that are there, and I’m proud of those that decided to place their businesses in Five Points. But we want to support each and every one of those individuals and collective businesses to create a place where not only they’re open, but they can feel the synergy and they feel that we’re all working together and we’re working intently to highlight their hard work.
KB: Can you give me some specifics? What can a BID do to support the existing businesses, but also to make Welton Street a place where we can see Black-owned businesses start up and thrive?
HC: I think one is addressing safety issues, if there is any safety issues. Make sure that our marketing and activation supports our aim towards highlighting those businesses. And then third is making sure that we are hearing from the community and surveying what kind of supports does each individual business need, and making sure that at least we’re aggregating that information and disseminating to the right places.
The BID can be an advocate for businesses and go outside of its own resources to tap into the network of resources that may be there, to support some of the activities that are there. And I think advocacy in a strategic way is very important.
KB: You know, one theme that we have reported on over the years is that, you know, because of the cost of housing, because of the way the city has developed in the last five or 10 years, Five Points is not a majority Black neighborhood anymore, and I wonder if that matters for this conversation. Like, does it matter if the customer base doesn’t necessarily match the business base?
HC: I think at the end of the day that is an important topic. I, in my own private business, what I’m looking to this corridor and others is to bring back what I believe is very helpful, the middle income … A middle income housing initiative, one in which I am looking to bring back to the neighborhood, it would be very much a part of how we can retain folks in the neighborhood and attract others. Because you’re right, the vibrancy of a neighborhood is not only just the commercial corridor, but is also the residential piece about it. Diversity is very important to our city. It’s very important to our neighborhoods. And diversity even in the economic demographics is important.
What I mean by that, is Five Points was known, even for the Black community, where doctors, lawyers, architects lived in the community alongside those that may not have been a doctor. The blue collar, white collar, if you will, were all living in the same neighborhood. And I think that’s what made the neighborhood beautiful, you could look outside your house and experience the success collectively. And so I think that’s the story of Five Points, especially in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
Five Points, and especially District 9, in comparison to the rest of the city, it has affordability stock, low-income housing, and then you have the market-rate housing. And so there is a chasm that exists that needs to be bridged between the two.
KB: And just to be clear, housing isn’t necessarily in the purview of the BID, right? I mean, this is just something you might advocate for?
HC: That is not on the BID. That is what I, as a developer, I’ve been working on, middle-income housing.
KB: I think that encapsulates most of what I wanted to ask you about. I know you were bummed out when you saw that Coffee at the Point was gone, and that the status of Welton Street Cafe was distressing to a lot of folks.
HC: Yeah, because you know, I’m gonna be honest, like I did my business meetings intentionally at Coffee at the Point. My lunch meetings, if I’m not downtown, I’m at Welton Street Cafe. [Scratch Family Bakery], don’t want to leave them out, because I think they have been doing a great job there … but what I’m addressing is the sit down, like Coffee at the Point.
You would run into everybody there. You would run into everyone, whether they were working for the city or in politics, whether they were working in the neighborhood, or they were very active in the neighborhood. Or they were visiting, or they’re business owners or whatnot … and so that’s a place that we’re missing on Welton Street.
It should be a place where people say, ‘We’re gonna go to Five Points. That’s the destination, and we can stay in Five Points for the whole day if we wanted to.’
KB: So let me ask you a stupid question. Why is this important?
HC: It’s important to me because of the cultural history and heritage. It’s important to the city because it was the first cultural neighborhood, what happened there. And it’s important, I think, for the future, right? That the inspiration comes from history. It’s not in a vacuum … this is one of those places where you can be inspired. And I think the inspiration should not only be just historical, but it is also should be active today. So I think it’s very important for a city like Denver that has been growing, to retain its cultural heritage in different neighborhoods.
This was one of those neighborhoods in Colorado that was really redlined, and community turned that struggle into beauty. I think that’s something we should never forget.