AURORA | After months of delays and a floundering business model, the Afrikmall project on East Colfax Avenue is no more.
In its place, organizers are looking to turn the hulking, 56,000-square-foot building at Colfax and Galena Street into a hub of live music, entertainment, culture and the arts.
Crews have been working since September to turn the old JC Penney building on Colfax into The Soul Center, a sprawling hub that will host multiple live concerts a week, broadcast television shows and offer shopping and dining.
Leon Burroughs, owner of The Soul Center, said the first concert is scheduled for Dec. 2.
Already, the massive building looks different from its brief run as Afrikmall. Several of the retailers and eateries that filled the 40 small storefronts are gone.
Burroughs, who hosts popular internet TV show Soul TV, dedicated to “old school funk” music, said the facility will be a cultural center, not just a retail hub.
“That’s not the function anymore,” he said.
The restaurants that stayed offer much of the same African fare they always have, but Burroughs said restaurants now have to offer some American dishes as well, in an effort to appeal to a broader audience.
“Being a cultural center has to be everything for all people, not just Africans,” he said.
An Army veteran, Burroughs said he wants the center to be a draw for veterans from all walks of life, particularly those who served overseas in more recent wars.
One of the rooms upstairs has been converted into a studio space for Burroughs’ popular online TV show, which has more than 600,000 likes on Facebook. Before moving to Colfax, Burroughs said he operated the show out of a small studio on Parker Road.
“I had about 4,000 square-feet,” he said this week, speaking on the main concert floor of The Soul Center. “Now I have more than 45,000.”
Some of the concepts from Afrikmall remain, including the 8,000-square-foot ballroom on the second floor.
Burroughs said, if Aurora had a larger African population, maybe the Afrikmall model would have lasted.
“Obviously that model does not work well for the city of Aurora,” he said.
City officials had high hopes for Afrikmall and gave a $165,000 tax break to Northstar Development when the company bought the vacant building three years ago.
Tim Gonerka, a retail specialist for the city, said that tax break is still in place with Northstar, and they are hopeful the new concept will turn the building into the thriving sales tax generator city officials had hoped for.
Already, Northstar has renovated the building and upgraded its infrastructure, making it a more attractive option for other businesses. Not to mention, just 30 days passed between the end of Afrikmall and The Soul Center stepping in.
“The continued investment in modernizing the original Aurora area is good for future growth in the area. That was, in part, because the building and venue was ready for its next ‘life,’” Gonerka said.
Even if Afrikmall didn’t make it, Gonerka said the city’s attempts to revitalize the Aurora Cultural Arts District are working, and the fact the massive building is no longer vacant shows that.
“While disappointed that the Afrikmall concept did not pan out, the city is pleased that the program to improve and add updated venues for retail and businesses is showing that the program works,” he said. “The unfinished old JC Penney’s store sat vacant for a significant period of time before North Star bought it and invested in the building.”