Brick-by-brick: Plans for tech hub at former Jefferson Center move forward

BROOKS SUTHERLAND

The Blade

[email protected]

OCT 26, 2021

8:00 AM

Every week, Monday through Friday, like clockwork, Tammi Sherman takes a drive around the former Jefferson Center — a vacant building with rich history, bounded by four downtown streets in Toledo. 

While others who pass by may only see a 110-year-old building that has sat uninhabited for years with railings rotting out from the bottom, and staircases that lead into an empty abyss, Ms. Sherman, vice president of Bitwise Toledo, sees a landmark of opportunity just waiting to be spread into parts of the city that are often disenfranchised, forgotten about, and looked down upon. 

And though that transformation will take some time getting off the ground, she plans to be there every step of the way, no matter how big or how small the progression. 

“Just to see a brick or something move, that’s inspiring,” Ms. Sherman said Monday. “I’m just excited to see it from beginning to end.”

Artist rendering of ProMedica's technology innovation center, which is receiving an Ohio Historic Preservation Tax Credit award, on June 30 at the Jefferson Center in Toledo.

Donning a safety vest with a hard hat atop her head, Ms. Sherman gave a tour of the building formerly known as the Jefferson Center to The Blade Monday, where she detailed Bitwise’s plans to not only bring nearly 400 full-time jobs to northwest Ohio, train diverse populations to earn high-paying jobs in the technology sector, and generate more than $20 million in new annual payroll — but to also use the building as a civic center of sorts that will benefit the surrounding community.

“We want to have our doors open, people can come in, use the free wi-fi, have a cup of coffee, sit in the atrium area, we want it to be open to everybody,” she said. 

Through $30 million in renovations, the building currently collecting moss, vines, and blight, will soon become a bustling innovation center filled with more than 100 offices and multiple businesses active in it daily. 

Bitwise’s venture to Toledo — its first expansion outside of California — happened through a partnership with ProMedica earlier this year. The former Jefferson Center building, which was built as Toledo’s central post office in 1911, and later became a vocational rehabilitation center owned by Toledo Public Schools, was purchased by the non-profit health care system in 2019 for $1.2 million. 

Seizing on the opportunity to use the building as an incubator hub that could potentially grow technology-based jobs in an area famous for its automotive and manufacturing background, ProMedica was strategic in partnering with Bitwise, a Fresno, Calif.-based company known for expanding into cities they deem “underdog cities.”

Bitwise’s mission is to target underserved populations in these underdog cities, commit to providing them with more job opportunities through apprenticeships and workforce training, specifically in the technology industry, and in turn, grow the industry in those very cities they deem to have untapped potential. It’s a strategy that has given an economic life to each of the cities the company has expanded to since it opened in Fresno in 2013, according to co-founder Irma Olguin Jr., a University of Toledo graduate. 

“What we do is build tech economies in underestimated cities,” the chief executive officer said in a recent interview with CNBC. “And so when you peel that apart, what does that mean? It means that we’re trying to introduce the technology industry and all of its high-wage jobs to places you don’t expect to find it.” 

Ms. Sherman, a Toledo native, who grew up in public housing, and later lived in the Old West End neighborhood, was hired to lead the company’s expansion into northwest Ohio in July. Since arriving back to Toledo after careers with Walmart and Sam’s Club sent her around the country, most recently in Los Angeles, Ms. Sherman has been pounding the pavement, seeking out partners in the community, and pitching to companies what Bitwise can offer to them.

The building is expected to be completed in 2023. Construction will begin next year, while the process to obtain permits, and work to remove furniture and other objects left in the building has already begun. The Ohio Tax Credit Authority granted the company a 1.8 percent, 10-year job creation tax credit back in August. 

On the first floor of the center, an area that was once a welding area, a cafeteria will be built. The first floor will have 70-some offices, and the main entrance, which has marble walls, will be re-purposed and will feature two revitalized domes that will send natural light into the building at the front of the center. 

Each floor will have classrooms, offices, and conference centers, and the basement of the building will feature a staffed childcare center to remove barriers to individuals utilizing Bitwise’s programs. A gymnasium located on the second floor will be converted into an atrium, splitting two spaces for offices and classrooms outside of an open space in the middle. 

Though the immediate benefits of the center will be its civic use, and the addition of jobs to the community, Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz sees its arrival as having a longer-lasting impact. 

“What I can really see it as, is the first domino in a larger innovation district,” the mayor said, pointing to how the Toledo Recovery Plan has a specific line item about infrastructure improvements in and around the former Jefferson Center building. “…I think if you look at the Jefferson Center as the eastern boundary and potentially the Museum of Art as a western boundary, that large area could grow into a hub for tech jobs. I think that’s some exciting potential.”

The mayor believes the center will kickstart a new era in Toledo, one that changes the way the city perceives itself. 

“It changes our narrative,” he said. “We’ve always been a city that knows how to use its brawn. Now, we’re a city that can show the world that we can use our brain too. I think more than anything else, what’s important here is the message it sends to the rest of the world about Toledo.” 

But until Bitwise — a company that has trained over 5,000 diverse individuals in tech and graduated 80 percent of those individuals to jobs in the industry — officially opens its doors and works to attract businesses to the area, Ms. Sherman is focused on kicking things off immediately. In September, Bitwise Toledo offered its first eight-week class to 12 people, and while the former Jefferson Center is under construction, the regional office will have a temporary home near the Valentine Theatre.

Minorities, individuals in the LGBTQ community, and women, are some of groups the company will prioritize. Being someone who came from Toledo and faced challenges as an African-American woman seeking success, Ms. Sherman is excited to be a part of bringing that inclusiveness to Toledo. One brick at a time. 

“They focus on people who have been disenfranchised,” Ms. Sherman said of Bitwise. “I am that person. I know what that’s like. And to be able to support this project, being a native of Toledo, it’s very personal for me. It’s beyond personal.”