About 50 people gathered under the blazing sun on Thursday in the Camp Greene neighborhood in support of Do Greater Charlotte and its founder William McNeely. The attendees came together to celebrate the start of demolition and construction of the nonprofit’s CRTV (pronounced “creative”) Lab, a co-working and co-learning space for youth, housed in the basement at Shiloh Institutional Baptist Church.
McNeely says demolition is scheduled for mid-September with plans to have renovations complete by the end of the year. After completion of the nearly 8,000-square-foot basement, the converted space will house a local coffee shop in partnership with Enderly Coffee, a maker space, production studios and several event spaces.
At the groundbreaking ceremony, guests put on hard hats and safety goggles to swing sledgehammers at one of the walls to be torn down. They could also scan a QR code with their smartphone for an augmented reality view of several finished areas.
Do Greater Charlotte represents purpose for McNeely. The west Charlotte native spent his career in corporate America, including a stint in business and marketing development at Apple. In 2017, he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which required him to carry around an oxygen tank to help him breathe and later resulted in a double lung transplant in 2019.
“As I came out, it really crystallized the fact that I wanted to give back to the community and to create an organization that really focused on youth and show them how great they could be and encourage them to reach their full potential,” he said in reference to leaving corporate America in 2017 and founding Do Greater Charlotte shortly thereafter.
With a $250 Helpful, Unfettered Gift (HUG) — a micro-grant awarded by Charlotte Is Creative — McNeely purchased the first iPad for his mobile technology truck that travels into underserved communities to teach kids about entrepreneurship and facilitate creative classes such as coding, design, video production and photography. By granting access to technology, Do Greater Charlotte was also addressing issues such as economic mobility and the digital divide.
“We were really at that point stuck. What do we do next?” he said during the groundbreaking ceremony on Thursday. “We decided there were a couple things that we need to focus on: we need to build a creative platform for kids, not just a truck that goes out. Now, an opportunity for them to be involved on site, online and a physical space that we could design specifically for their needs, designed to create confidence in them.”
But the onset of Covid-19 halted their activities.
In search of that physical space, McNeely last summer visited Shiloh Institutional Baptist Church, the church he attended growing up. Pastor Charles Thompson said that prior to meeting with McNeely, the church had been praying about plans for a community-based youth program. They knew they needed to do something to engage the youth in the quickly gentrifying community.
McNeely shared his vision with church leadership, and they were on board, offering the basement space to help bring his vision to reality.
“I’m on board because I believe in the vision of Do Greater to allow for human potential — as William McNeely points out — despite the zip code, despite the reality that our young people may find themselves in,” Thompson said. “Also, I believe that we need to continue to be a helpful resource and make sure that we can put forth healthy solutions for this community.”
McNeely’s vision for a permanent space recently earned him a spot in the inaugural cohort of LendingTree Foundation’s LendaHand Alliance, along with a $375,000 grant divided evenly over the next three years. He says it will cost about $800,000 to complete the entire renovation, and they’ve met more than 60% of their goal.
Charlotte native Steven Williams was among the crowd at Thursday’s event. The 31-year-old artistic designer heard about McNeely’s efforts to expose youth to creativity, technology and entrepreneurship. Like McNeely, Williams grew up in west Charlotte and said he’s inspired by the work Do Greater Charlotte is doing in the community.
“Another Charlottean is coming back directly into his community to make a difference,” he said. “Bringing this lab here is going to create a lot of opportunities for these children.”