ABOVE PHOTO: Businesswoman Astan Sacko stands smiling in front of her hair braiding business in West Philadelphia.
By Giana Lawrence-Primus, capital projects manager for the Department of Commerce
In 2019, the Department of Commerce is celebrating 10 years of the Storefront Improvement Program (SIP), a grant program that offers reimbursements for facade improvements on commercial properties. In my time working as the manager of the Storefront Improvement Program (SIP), I encountered a lot of unique businesses. Astan Sacko, one of West Philadelphia’s immigrant business owners and the owner of Astan African Hair Braiding Salon, is one of my most memorable SIP applicants.
She is an immigrant from Africa who has been in the United States since 2000. Ever since coming to Philadelphia, Astan has taken her future into her own hands.
“When I came here, everybody and everything is based on business,” she said.
After taking in her surroundings here, it only seemed natural to pursue business herself. She enrolled in courses at the Community College of Philadelphia, and set off on a path to eventually own her own business. Astan African Hair Braiding Salon is her chance to be her own boss, and to promote beauty through her business.
“To offer service to ladies to get them happy and beautiful — that makes me very happy, too,” she said.
I first met Astan in January 2015, on a site visit to her property near 54th and Market Streets. At that first meeting, I sat in her the soon-to-be business’s unfinished interior, which warmed only by a small, kerosene-fueled space heater. I chatted with her about SIP design and InStore Forgivable Loan Program guidelines, and learned of her ambitious plans for the building.
When Astan purchased the building in 2013, it was vacant and being used as an illegal dumping site. Garbage was strewn throughout the property, both inside and out. The list of issues also seemed endless: a partially collapsed roof, rotted wooden frames, broken windows, a water- damaged brick façade, and water in the basement, to name a few.
But Astan saw beyond the flaws and took on the enormous task of rehabilitating the property. The location she chose for her business carries sentimental and cultural significance.
“Market Street is known everywhere in the US, she said . “In every city, you may find a Market Street. So this Market is the Market for me. Back home, people, if they need to do their hair, they go to the market to do their hair braiding.”
In 2017, Astan was finally prepared to begin her storefront transformation. These improvements to the exterior were timed to begin as she concluded the interior renovations and equipment installation through the InStore Forgivable Loan Program.
The completed façade improvements include:
• Installation of new commercial windows
• Commercial doors
• Brick pointing
• Sealing and waterproofing of the façade’s baseline
• Exterior painting of security gates
Astan’s storefront design concept was further enhanced by specialized pro-bono design services provided by Commerce’s nonprofit partner, Community Design Collaborative.
“The SIP has been a big help,” she said. “I was in water, and they fished me out of the water. If I did not have that help, I wouldn’t have this.”
The entire value of investment made by the Department of Commerce programs, including InStore, SIP, and the SIP design consult, is approximately $72,000. This investment not only benefits Astan, but also helps to re-activate the formerly vacant property and the areas surrounding the business. Astan also worked with another Commerce partner, The Enterprise Center, to secure a business loan.
With Astan’s ambitious vision of interior and façade renovations, she created not one, but two retail spaces on the first floor. In the front of the property, she operates her hair braiding salon. In the rear, she created a new hair accessory retail store.
In the four years I have worked with Astan, I can describe her as an impressive small business entrepreneur. She is a visionary, ambitious, and resourceful leader.
To find out more about the Storefront Improvement Program, a grant that helps business and property owners upgrade their storefronts, visit: https://www.phila.gov/programs/storefront-improvement-program/.