Common Wealth Development celebrates 40th anniversary with artisan food and craft beverage tour

Tour highlights business incubator's companies
Common Wealth Development celebrates 40th anniversary with artisan food and craft beverage tour
Photo courtesy of The Visual Soundtrack
The tour will end at Old Sugar Distillery.

This year, Common Wealth Development, a private nonprofit community development organization, is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Established in 1979 by people in the Willy Street neighborhood on Madison’s east side, Common Wealth Development’s goal was to revitalize the declining neighborhood.

“At that time the Willy Street area was considered blight,” says Karen Bednar, fund development director for Common Wealth. “There weren’t a lot of healthy stable housing options. There wasn’t a vibrant commercial footprint. So a group of neighbors came together and said ‘let’s provide stable affordable housing and stimulate economic development and community building.’ And here we are. This is Willy Street.”

Today Common Wealth operates two business incubators, the Madison Enterprise Center—in partnership with Madison Gas and Electric—at 100 S. Baldwin St. and Main Street Industries, 931 E. Main St., a 50,000-square-foot space that was a former Greyhound Bus terminal that was renovated in 1996.

The incubators are home to some of Madison’s most successful food and beverage independent small businesses including Quince & Apple/Treat, Potter’s Crackers, Dashelito’s hot sauces, Wm. Chocolate, Old Sugar Distillery and Giant Jones Brewing Co., a certified organic craft brewery, which just celebrated its one year anniversary. Alumni of Common Wealth’s business incubator program—to qualify a business must be a for-profit company, produce a product or provide a service and have the potential for future job creation—include Shopbop, Full Spectrum Solar, Just Coffee Co-op and EVP Coffee.

In addition to providing affordable commercial and production space on the Isthmus—”it’s hard to find,” says Megan Diaz-Ricks, Common Wealth’s director of economic development—Common Wealth’s incubators help people with the process of starting a business and supports them as their companies grow.

“Starting a business is scary,” says Rebekah Stephens who manages the incubators at Common Wealth. “When you are looking to step out on your own, we can provide a community environment where we can help with getting your name out there, assist you with financial resources that we find and connect you to events like festivals. We are able to help with those areas that small businesses tend to struggle with when they first start off.”

In addition to festivals, including Common Wealth’s flagship event the Willy Street Fair from Sept. 15-16, Common Wealth is planning the upcoming Artisan Food and Craft Beverage Tour on July 19 to highlight some of the incubator’s businesses. The tour, a fundraiser for Common Wealth’s economic development programs, is being co-hosted by Otehlia Cassidy and her company, Madison Eats Food Tours.

“I think many people are aware that we have an incredible community of artisan food producers here in Madison but maybe aren’t aware of the support system within the start-up food community or haven’t really had a chance to explore it themselves first hand,” Cassidy says. “I have found from leading tours and events for over seven years that when people have a chance to hear the stories and meet the people behind the products, they feel the passion and it creates a strong connection. It builds community and supports our local economy, and Common Wealth has done so much to be a part of that foundation.”​​​​​​​

The tour offers two different options—general admission and VIP—but both will include behind-the-scenes looks at production facilities and plenty of samples, Cassidy says. And both tours will end at Old Sugar Distillery for an after-party with food, drinks and music by members of No Name String Band.

“We are hoping to open up Common Wealth Development to people who might not have been familiar with our incubator spaces and food production,” Stephens says. “And working with Madison Eats brings a new group of people to our circle.”