Sweet Auburn Works has unveiled SPARK Innovation Lab, focused on helping reimagine retail in the heart of the Sweet Auburn Historic District.

Presented in collaboration with Bank of America and the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), the SPARK Innovation Lab provides existing small business owners in the district, as well as those who intend to establish a business there, with targeted technical assistance, funding, and community support. 

“We aim for shopping in the Sweet Auburn Historic District to become as coveted an Atlanta experience as visiting the Jackson Street Bridge, Oakland Cemetery or the Atlanta BeltLine,” said LeJuano Varnell, Executive Director of Sweet Auburn Works.

Housed in revitalized retail space in the historic Odd Fellows Building at 228 Auburn Ave,, the SPARK Innovation Lab is a hybrid office/retail test concept space to enhance the local retail experience with a focus on preservation, revitalization and promotion of Sweet Auburn. 

“We are thrilled to welcome the city to shop, dine and play in the heart of Sweet Auburn,” said Varnell. “We want to offer a truly authentic customer experience by shopping our array of local makers and vendors while getting a sneak peek of our visionary future of a reimagined retail corridor.”

The SPARK Innovation Lab was born out of Sweet Auburn Works’ vision, Bank of America’s commitment to fund that vision, and SCAD’s new multidisciplinary course, GOOD 560 Design for Good. The Innovation Lab directly supports the mission of SCAD SERVE, the university’s service design studio that empowers the SCAD community to listen to the needs of its neighbors and local leaders, and to envision meaningful design solutions that improve quality of life in the university’s hometowns of Atlanta and Savannah.

Bank of America announced earlier this year that it will provide grants of up to $25,000 per business to local entrepreneurs of color as part of its commitment to Sweet Auburn Works. The grant is part of Bank of America’s $1.25 billion, five-year commitment to advance racial equality and economic opportunity, which includes support to minority entrepreneurs.

Sweet Auburn Works is committed to preserving, promoting and revitalizing the commercial and cultural legacy of the Sweet Auburn Historic District. The SPARK Innovation Lab is one of many programs instituted to realize this vision.

In addition to SCAD’s commitment to Sweet Auburn Works, the university is also working directly with Sweet Auburn Bread Company to rebrand this Atlanta institution and favorite of former President Bill Clinton and Food Network Star Rachael Ray.

The SPARK launch comes on the heels of the National Park Service issuing a report indicating that Sweet Auburn has lost nearly half of its historic buildings since being designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

Sweet Auburn  was considered the hub of African American prosperity during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It birthed some of the nation’s most successful Black businesses and contributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s formative development.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.