Bill Allen brought development flair to his work

Entrepreneur dies at 80
DeKalb entrepreneur Lecester "Bill" Allen

Credit: Courtesy

Credit: Courtesy

DeKalb entrepreneur Lecester "Bill" Allen

Prominent south DeKalb County businessman and philanthropist Lecester “Bill” Allen played his cards close to the vest. Outside of a small circle of trusted friends, he was not an open book, even eschewing interviews and picture-taking until the last few years of his life.

DeKalb County CEO-elect Lorraine Cochran-Johnson was one of that select number.

She remembers getting a call from Allen in 2018 inviting her to his office to talk, unusual in itself because assistants usually handled his scheduling. Once there, in what she said was an even rarer move, they jumped into his car and drove around as he pointed out land tracts he had amassed. He had become the city of Stonecrest’s largest commercial property owner.

“He said, ‘I want to build housing and I want to build retail. I want to create an amazing community, and there’s no better place to do that than Stonecrest, Georgia,’” she recounted.

Allen distilled his dream of making south DeKalb a booming business hub into the 2021 opening of the New Black Wall Street Market. Allen converted a former Target store into a Bourbon Street-themed market that brought more than 100 Black, minority and women vendors together to sell everything from glitzy fashion apparel to vegan ice cream. The concept’s name is a commemoration of the 1921 racist riot that destroyed Tulsa, Oklahoma’s, original Black Wall Street.

Fostering Black entrepreneurship to give his community a bigger slice of the American dream, increasing the number of Black and women-owned businesses and promoting education were Allen’s lifetime passions, and close associates and family say he moved the needle on all of them.

Allen died June 22 at 80 after a long illness. He’s survived by wife Matty Allen and daughter Dana Millsworth plus various nieces and nephews. Memorial services are being planned.

Raised on a rural Arkansas plantation, Allen built considerable wealth during his years in Michigan, establishing a chain of day care centers and helping create dozens of private charter schools and two colleges across the United States. He gave freely of his earnings, said family and business associates, donating millions to historically Black college and university students.

The executive later began spending most of his time in Atlanta and turned his business and philanthropic focus on the Stonecrest area and south DeKalb County. Allen was pulled in by the metro area’s vibrancy and by a notable boyhood encounter.

“As a kid, he got his first taste of what Black success looked like when he was here for a National FFA Organization conference. He saw African Americans on Sweet Auburn dressed in suits and ties and dresses,” said Matthew Hampton, director of both the Black Wall Street project and Allen’s signature Allen Entrepreneurial Institute. And as Allen noted, “they weren’t going to funerals.”

Allen created the institute to provide coaching and training. Thousands of youthful would-be entrepreneurs and adults took part in intensive programs focusing on skills ranging from how to put a business plan together to developing marketing savvy.

Sometimes, said Cochran-Johnson, who taught there, “we were educating people until the wee hours of the morning.”

Later came The Startup Factory, a business incubator and coworking space for local entrepreneurs. It closed during the pandemic.

He was a day-to-day fighter when it came to putting his plans into action and an expert at knowing how to get a job done while striving for a win-win for all parties.

“He really was about executing and doing something more than just going to another chicken dinner and talking about problems and getting awards,” said Hampton.

Allen’s ability to analyze and problem-solve came into sharp focus during bumps in the road, such as when some tenants at the Black Wall Street Market complained about water leaks and operational issues.

There were differences with Stonecrest officials over delaying approval of the next phase of the Wall Street project, a planned international village and 16-story hotel.

Controversy, challenges, and the day-to-day running of multiple enterprises had his business circle falling back on “Allen-isms” as they came to call them. Examples:

“You will never be extraordinary doing the ordinary. Excellence at a minimum. Money starts in the mind and ends in the pocket.”

Such tutelage became mental bedrock for C.H. Braddy, Allen’s godson and a Clayton County business owner and minister. The lessons sank in so deeply that when he sought to expand his Now Faith Apostolic Ministries a decade ago, he located a property, signed a contract, but found that affordability and potential bank loan approval were sticking points.

Allen offered him two checks totaling close to $2 million to close the deal.

Braddy turned him down.

He told his mentor, “As much as I’d like to say yes, you have instilled in me for years that you have to be bankable.” I said, “I need to be able to go to a bank, and if we’re not ready, we’re not ready.’”

Allen’s reaction? “Well son, I guess you’ve been listening a little bit.”