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Restoring Vitality

Kevin Winchell (left), associate director of Community Engagement at Stetson’s Center for Community Engagement, stands alongside Mario Davis, executive director of the Greater Union Life Center
Photos: Ciara Ocasio/Stetson University

“Our mission at Stetson is focused on preparing our students to solve the most pressing challenges facing our communities. When completed, the Wright Building will support this mission by creating opportunities for student learning that have community impact — particularly through internships, research and capstone experiences.”

Those are the words of Kevin Winchell, associate director of Community Engagement at Stetson’s Center for Community Engagement. 

Winchell continued: “Through [the project’s] business and nonprofit incubator, our students will gain experience in entrepreneurship, marketing, finance, business law and small business development. Through its local food market, our students will gain experience with food systems, public health, community gardening and environmental sustainability research. Through its cultural center, our students will gain experience in exhibit curation, historical research, educational programming and facilities management.”

The two-story Wright Building, once a community pillar, was built in 1920.

Winchell made the comments following an announcement that the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in early July, had awarded a total of $1.6 million in grants to 22 sites and organizations through its African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Among the sites is the J.W. Wright Building, circa 1920, near Stetson’s campus in DeLand.

The Greater Union Life Center Inc. (the Greater Union First Baptist Church) was awarded $100,000 for the Wright Building restoration — with Stetson playing a lead role in obtaining the dollars, which will be used to revitalize what once was the cornerstone of a bustling African-American business and entertainment district.

Established in 2003, the nonprofit Greater Union Life Center works to promote healthier living, economic stability and community engagement in Spring Hill, an historically African-American community in west Volusia County. 

The local effort, Winchell believes, represents quintessential Stetson — leveraging knowledge and assets while also expanding and deepening community-engaged learning for health, history, art and business students.

“We’re all in this together,” Winchell said. “We’re thrilled to continue this work with our partners like the Greater Union Life Center, and appreciate their roles as equity-minded leaders in our community and co-educators of our students.”

Winchell: “We’re all in this together.”

The grant application largely was written by Maxwell Droznin, community engagement coordinator for the Center for Community Engagement and an adjunct professor of public health. He also helped flesh out future plans for the center, including budgets and identifying potential revenue streams. (Droznin recently left Stetson to attend the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, beginning Aug. 5.)

According to grant documents, the Greater Union Life Center will completely restore the Wright Building in accordance with national historic preservation guidelines, preserving its heritage while also promoting local economic development and cultural vitalization.

The two-story building was constructed and designed by architect Francis Miller, who was active in the Florida land boom of the 1920s. The building served as a grocery and general store for African-Americans in segregated Florida. Business pioneer James Wright,who had ties to Booker T. Washington, empowered local black entrepreneurs by leasing retail spaces on the second floor.

Currently, the building is in poor structural condition and sits vacant.

Davis: “This prestigious grant brings us one step closer to fully restoring the Wright Building to its original purpose … .”

“This prestigious grant brings us one step closer to fully restoring the Wright Building to its original purpose of supporting economic development and cultural vibrancy in our community when built in 1920,” commented Mario Davis, executive director of the Greater Union Life Center and a native of DeLand. “We hope the restored Wright Building will extend the arts, entertainment, tourism and shopping boom experienced by downtown DeLand to our community.”

In turn, Stetson students will participate in everything from managing some of the operations and consulting with entrepreneurs as part of business incubation to growing and harvesting produce from gardens, and handling sales, marketing and administrative duties. 

Among those students, for example, is Chelsea Weaver, a senior public health major who this fall will be a Newman Civic Fellow, one of 262 students from 39 states. As a first-year student, Seaver began volunteering at the Spring Hill Community Garden and has since contributed research about the Wright Building. 

In addition, a host of others have been involved — faculty such as Asal Johnson, PhD, assistant professor of public health, and staff members like Sidney Johnston, assistant director of Grants, Sponsored Research & Strategic Initiatives for Stetson’s Office of Academic Affairs — along with DeLand’s African-American Museum of the Arts; the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences/Volusia County Extension; and the Hannibal Square Heritage Center and CrealdéSchool of Art, both of Winter Park near Orlando.

Concluded Winchell, “This is what progress looks like.”

– Michael Candelaria