Crosby: Diversity and a Growing Business Community Part of What Makes Aurora ‘Best City to Live the American Dream’

By Denise Crosby / The Beacon-News

O n this list, Aurora came out a champ.

Yes, I know, those top-10 rankings of cities across the country that fill our inboxes have become so commonplace we barely pay attention to them anymore.

Unless, of course, it’s our city at the very top.

Then, while we may not go out and throw a party celebrating the big win, we do take a closer look to check out why Aurora beat out every other municipality on this particular list, including last year’s champ, West Valley City, Utah.

What caught my eye was one of the yardsticks used to determine this “Best City to Live the American Dream,” which, according to personal finance company SmartAsset, which compiled the data, means living a full life surrounded by a community of people doing the same, having economic opportunity and the ability to save enough for a home in a place where those from all walks of life can live comfortably.

That metric which struck me as the most compelling: Diversity, a word that not all that long ago was used against the City of Lights, but now proudly defines it. And people are starting to take notice, if for no other reason than the fact we as a country are moving toward more inclusiveness.

A new Pew research shows that a majority of Americans (57 percent) say the fact the U.S. population is made of people of many different races and ethnicities is a “very good” thing for this country; with another 20 percent describing it as “somewhat good.”

I like to think the way Aurora goes, so also goes the United States of America. Census figures that go back to the early 2000s show this city’s ethnic makeup matching the country’s, which is why the late Mayor Tom Weiser liked to refer to Aurora as a “microcosm of the macrocosm.”

Another reason I read this recent city ranking with more interest is because, while in the past I may have shrugged off the notion of Aurora landing on a top 10 list, there’s far too much happening here to ignore this distinction. If you’ve been paying any attention at all, you know all the positive news coming out of City Hall is more than hype, particularly in downtown Aurora.

But there is no question major kudos go to Mayor Richard Irvin, in large part for gathering together an economic development team that is making things happen. And what this team found, noted Elle Withall, a specialist who works with the city’s not-for-profit Invest Aurora, is how helpful it is to “walk hand in hand” through the process with these new businesses.

For Yvonne Toney-Thompson, a wife and mother of three who was born on an Army base in Panama and whose mother is Panamanian, that support has made it possible for her to move her small furniture and home décor business out of her garage and into a store at 8 North Broadway in downtown Aurora by “walking me through the process, meeting with the city and explaining things I didn’t understand.”

The team even helped her design a logo for The Cotton Seed, which she fell in love with the minute she saw the finished product. It was, she told me, as if this team “believed in me more than I believed in myself.”

But it’s also about believing that Aurora really does deserve to be on top of the pile. Toney-Thompson heard about the renewed downtown activity going on and wanted to get in on “the ground level,” noted Withall, who worked with Fitzpatrick to start an incubator program that helped get the busy mom — and Navy veteran — in the door of the building, where her rent will slowly increase as the business gets off the ground.

“One of the key things we are doing at the city is working with property owners to figure out new incentives for small businesses to fill these vacant spaces,” said Withall. “We want to give them the best start possible to grow into their brick and mortar and succeed.”

Leland Towers developer Karademis, she added, has done the same thing for Geneva-based Altiro Latin Fusion, owned by Mexican immigrant Roberto Avila and his wife Erika, who are set to open their fifth restaurant in August at the former Leland Legends. These creative processes are not only helping with recruitment but are setting the business up for success, said Withall, adding that “it’s always rewarding to be a part of that process and see a sign go up in the window of a vacancy. “

Of course, it’s not just businesses that reflect the diversity setting Aurora apart. The month of May, for the first time, was proclaimed Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in Aurora. And among those marking that occasion at last week’s City Council meeting was Pastor Asia Yang of the First Hmong Alliance Church in Aurora.

“We want Aurora,” said city spokesman Clayton Muhammad, “to be a place where everyone has a voice.”

Toney-Thompson hears that call loud and clear. Opening the doors to The Cotton Seed, which will feature handmade and refinished furniture, home décor and other items that reflect Southern charm and comfort, will not only allow her to build a brand based upon her own creativity but also showcase the talents of other local artists, she said.

In fact, the summer grand opening is such a big deal, Toney-Thompson became emotional when talking about what this opportunity means for her and her family.

“It really has,” she said, “been the dream of a lifetime.”

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“The Best Cities For Living the American Dream in 2019″ Data Survey, SmartAsset

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