Charles Wallace was born into a segregated society: Fort Wayne in 1930.
His father was a live-in chauffeur, and his mother was the same family’s live-in cook. Those were the only kinds of jobs black people could get in those days, Wallace said.
Despite the obstacles, the Wallaces created opportunities outside their full-time positions. His mother baked wedding cakes and assembled party platters to sell to Fort Wayne’s society families. His father started a courier service, transporting film dropped off at drugstores to the company that developed it and printed pictures.
Their example infused their son, affectionately known as Charlie Bob, with an enduring entrepreneurial spirit.
Wallace has owned and operated dozens of businesses during his 82 years. At first, he did it to provide for his wife and seven children. Now, he’s driven by a desire to make his community a better place.
A shot in the arm
Wallace, who grew up on Fort Wayne’s southeast side, thinks the area has become stagnant. And, frankly, it has a PR problem fueled by criminal activity.
That’s all you hear – bad news, bad news, bad news, he said.
Wallace’s approach to the problem was shaped by his entrepreneur’s mentality. He wants to turn boarded-up buildings into thriving businesses that offer jobs to people living nearby.
The result, he predicts, is that the community will look better and people will feel better about their neighborhood and about themselves. So in November 2011, Wallace bought a South Anthony Boulevard shopping center that lies just north of Paulding Road. The strip center was once home to a Rogers Market grocery store. That’s how people referred to it: the Rogers plaza.
Wallace rechristened it Charlie Bob’s International Plaza. He declined to share the purchase price, but the shopping center’s three parcels are now appraised at a total of $661,700, according to the Allen County Assessor’s Office.
I had a vision that I could change it around, Wallace said. This is the heart of the community here. And if the heart dies, the whole body dies.
In late June, the 67,000-square-foot shopping center was about 80 percent occupied, up from 49 percent when Wallace bought it. One retail space and one warehouse space are still available.
Wallace hopes the city will help with the expense of fixing the place up with money from the Commercial Facade Grant program. The program, which is financed with the city’s community economic development income tax, pays half the cost of investments in windows, doors, signs, lighting, awnings, landscaping and parking.
The city has not received the application, but spokesman John Perlich said city employees can work with Wallace on an application for next year. This year more than $202,000 in grants went to 10 applicants, including Quimby Village/Clyde Theater, Billy’s Dug Out, Oyster Bar and Brewers’ Art Supply.
A tipping point
Investments such as the one Wallace is making in the shopping plaza increase the tax base and the property values in this part of the city, said Lonell Jones, general manager for Wallace’s business ventures.
The men hope the shopping center’s development will become a focus for the neighborhood and a tipping point that sparks additional development in the area.
I think it’s great, Jones said. We’re trying to give back.
The plaza’s tenants include a Burmese grocery, a Chinese restaurant, a Korean wig and beauty-supply store and a dollar store owned by a Saudi Arabian family.
This spring, Wallace opened Charlie Bob’s Coin Laundry in the shopping center. Residents in the area needed a place to wash, dry and dry-clean clothes, he said.
Wallace invested about $410,000 to renovate the space and install 44 washers and dryers. But he added a twist by making the machines more welcoming to Burmese and Hispanic immigrants. Burmese- and English-language directions are posted on the walls.
Spanish signs are coming because the shopping center is trying to reach out to all minorities.
Wallace expects to create about 12 jobs at the laundry, which is open seven days a week. Among those jobs is a Burmese-speaking driver to pick up and drop off Burmese residents who don’t have transportation.
He also hired a Burmese-speaking attendant for the business.
Building on success
Wallace has owned and operated numerous businesses over the years with his late wife, Delories Dell Ricks-Wallace. She died in February 2011.
Their varied ventures have been in taverns, liquor stores, men’s clothing, tailoring, a nightclub, a floral shop, limousine service, real estate and housing development.
Many men lose their drive after losing their wives. But Wallace has kept his quick step, said John Dortch, president of the Fort Wayne Black Chamber of Commerce. Wallace is a member.
As he gets older, I think he gets stronger, Dortch said. He’s an incredible gentleman. And he never seems to get tired.
Wallace and Dortch attend the same church, Turner Chapel AME, and have had many conversations over the 30 or so years they’ve known each other.
During that time, Wallace has always been committed to building the community, said Dortch, who recently toured the shopping center and laundry.
Dortch believes Wallace will succeed in launching a renaissance of southeast Fort Wayne.
I’m very, very impressed, he said.
Focus on the future
The shopping center has a nonprofit piece that’s still in the works.
Wallace has committed to leasing space – at low or no cost – to a youth center being created by David Robinson, CEO of Mind Over Matter Inc. The minister works with teens on issues that include bullying and suicide prevention.
Robinson is waiting for word on several grant applications the organization has submitted for the project. LeRoy Jackson Jr., chairman of Mind Over Matter and Robinson’s father, estimated the total project will cost $1 million.
The men believe it’s important to give kids somewhere to go after school and in the summer. Wallace said the country wouldn’t need gun control if the community kept kids busy, giving them something to think about besides guns.
The youth center would have a gymnasium in the back to keep kids active, Jackson said. A chapel in the front of the space could double as a meeting room the rest of the week, he said. Another goal is to offer computers for homework and job training – not video games.
LeeAnn Thompson, one of Wallace’s daughters, is an assistant principal at Snider High School. She’s working closely with her father and plans to play a more active role in his business affairs after she retires from the school system in a few years
Thompson remembers helping fold clothes in her mother’s clothing store after school and cleaning a credit union with her family in the evenings. She and her siblings also put together bouquets for her mother’s flower shop in the days leading up to Mother’s Day.
Giving kids responsibilities allows them to build self-confidence, she said.
Jackson, who is retired, is president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s local chapter and a member of the Black Chamber.
He admires Wallace’s willingness to use his own money to build up the community.
He’s a very caring person, I’ll tell you, Jackson said. I think he’s a great guy.
Donít need flash
Wallace also is willing to address the community’s needs, something younger residents have been slow to do, Jackson said.
The younger people aren’t taking care of it, he said. If we get it going, maybe we can get some of the younger people on board.
Despite his seemingly boundless energy, Wallace is aware that he has fewer days in his future than in his past.
You don’t want to put anything on the back burner, the 82-year-old said.
Renovating the plaza is one of Wallace’s biggest business moves to date. He agrees that it might be easier at his age to sit in a recliner and write a check to support southeast Fort Wayne. But it’s not his style.
And, frankly, he doesn’t have the cash to do it. His assets are tied up in property he owns, property he used as collateral to buy the shopping plaza.
I’m in hock up to here, he said, drawing a hand across his chin. I never had cash money.
Sure, Wallace drives a Lincoln, but it’s 15 years old and he bought it from a salvage yard. His company van is 20 years old.
I take care of things, he said. You don’t need flash.
Those who have worked with the businessman are betting on his latest project’s success. Wallace places his bets on southeast Fort Wayne.
I have enough faith in it, he said, that I invest all my money in it.