Sheila Hill and Duntai Mathews
    Sheila Hill and Duntai Mathews pose for a photo on Monday, May 23, 2022, in front of a future small business development center run by their nonprofit, Think Big. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)
    By Kevin Haas
    Rock River Current
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    ROCKFORD — If Duntai Mathews and Sheila Hill see their vision come to fruition, a long underutilized building on North Main Street will grow into a bustling hub for helping entrepreneurs find success.

    The co-founders of Think Big, a nonprofit committed to removing the barriers that prevent minorities and women from business growth and development, are partnering with the city of Rockford to transform the property at 1311 N. Main St. into a small business development center.

    Mathews and Hill hope their efforts can increase the percentage of women- and minority-owned businesses in the community while helping create jobs and generational wealth for a multitude of families.

    “We’re going to become a corner over here that’s nationally known,” Mathews said during a news conference Monday. “The time is now and this is the place for Rockford, Illinois, to make history for our minority businesses.”

    (story continues below photo)
    Duntai Mathews, co-founder of Think Big, speaks Monday, May 23, 2022, during a news conference outside of a future small business development center at 1311 N. Main St. in Rockford. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)
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    Later Monday evening, the $3.1 million proposal was put before two City Council committees. The Finance and Personnel Committee voted to approve architectural services for renovating the property and to accept the donation of the building to the city by the owner Joseph James Partners.

    However, the city’s Planning and Development Committee opted to hold off on a vote on the partnership in whole to allow more time for aldermen’s questions to be answered. Some had concerns about the scope and sustainability of the project.

    Under the proposed partnership, the city would pour an estimated $1.2 million into redeveloping the 20,000-square-foot building. The city would also contribute $250,000 annually for five years to Think Big to run the center. The project is being paid for with money from the American Rescue Plan, the federal coronavirus stimulus package.

    “We know small businesses and entrepreneurs were tremendously impacted by COVID-19,” Mayor Tom McNamara said. “We also know that women and minorities are the fastest-growing groups of entrepreneurs. This facility will help ensure that those who want to open a business in Rockford will do so successfully.”

    Hill, who is president and CEO of the property management company Hill & Hill Enterprises, and Mathews, the president of DLM Manufacturing, have each learned from their own experience as business owners. The duo has helped 29 entrepreneurs grow their business after graduating through Think Big’s business development boot camp.

    McNamara praised Mathews, saying he couldn’t think of a better partner on the project.

    “His business could really be located anywhere in our country, and it’s located right here in Rockford, right off Auburn Street,” McNamara said. “And he is continually giving back and always helping lift up younger people and people new to the business world.”

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    Hill said they plan to partner with other agencies, such as the Illinois Small Business Development Center, “so we can truly be a one-stop shop for anyone who has business needs.”

    The center would be staffed, initially, by an office manager, operations manager and coordinator for various events in the space.

    The building was once home to Jerome Interiors and later Fight College boxing and fitness gym and an indoor skatepark. But it has been underutilized for years. It is now storage space for Rocktown Adventures and property management offices for Joseph James Partners, which owns the building and would donate it to the city.

    “Our donation and support are more than just a building,” said Peter Provenzano, president and CEO of Joseph James and SupplyCore. “Heather and I are committed to ongoing support of this new partnership between the city of Rockford and Think Big that improves access to education and mentoring and ultimately accelerates opportunities for local minority and women-owned businesses and entrepreneurs.”

    Provenzano said their were other inquiries for the space, including a previous proposal for an indoor storage facility and a couple pitches for dollar stores. “And we know how the community feels about a dollar store being in the neighborhood, it didn’t seem like a really popular thing,” he said.

    But Hill and Mathews see it as a fitting space to reach minority entrepreneurs.

    “It was important for us to have a presence on the west side of Rockford, and this building was a perfect fit for what we were trying to do,” Hill said.

    (Proposed cost breakdown below photo)
    Sheila Hill
    Sheila Hill, co-founder of Think Big, speaks Monday, May 23, 2022, during a news conference outside of a future small business development center at 1311 N. Main St. in Rockford. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

    Cost breakdown

    • Architectural services | $67,900
    • Construction | $1,200,000
    • Property acquisition | $350,000 (donation)
    • Construction administration | $17,424
    • Think Big funding agreement | $1,250,000
    • Contingency funds | $250,000
    • Total | $3,135,324

    Source: City of Rockford cost estimates

    This article is by Kevin Haas. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @KevinMHaas or Instagram @thekevinhaas.

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