A Groundbreaking Development in the Historic Vistula Neighborhood

By Ambrea Mikolajczyk

Guest Column

April 1, 2021 will forever be etched in my brain.

It was the day that cast a dark cloud and overshadowed the sacrifice, as well as all the good, and hard work done over 15 years that my husband Kevin and I have spent building the community and having a positive impact on housing throughout Toledo.

Before I share my disappointment, allow me to first tell you about my background and journey as one of the first Black female developers in the region.

My name is Ambrea Mikolajczyk and I was born and raised in Toledo in the BUMA neighborhood on Goodale and Macomber. I met my husband Kevin while we were teenagers working at the athletic apparel store Finish Line. I later discovered we attended the same high school, Roy C. Start.  I earned an academic scholarship through Toledo Excel and Helen Cooks, PhD, and graduated from The University of Toledo with a Pharmacy Administration Degree. I studied and made connections in order to land a career that spanned 15 years as a pharmaceutical sales manager for Pfizer, and then Genzyme.

Curious about real estate, Kevin and I attended an auction and purchased our first distressed properties: a house and a duplex. Not having experience in the fields of construction nor real estate, we attended meetings, watched videos, read, and researched everything we could to gain a better understanding of these industries. We partnered with experienced professionals to assist us in our efforts.

With each project we placed our livelihood on the line, using every dollar of our personal savings, 401K and Roth IRA plans, loans and all the sweat equity we could muster to invest in our neighborhoods. Fast-forward to today, we have renovated over 20 structures, improved property values in desolate communities, and own and manage, with our team, nearly 200 apartments.

In 2017, I felt a calling to leave my successful career in pharmaceuticals to launch our construction company, where I am majority owner.  Kevin and I had acquired the knowledge necessary to help clients with their construction needs and we wanted to pursue this new venture full-time. I named the company ARK, because very much like Noah in The Bible, I knew our novel career journey would be challenging, yet necessary. I knew the move would require tremendous faith in order to see it through to have any success. I also knew that starting the company would be difficult to navigate especially as a Black woman, as we are a scarcity in this male-dominated field.

So let’s revisit my dark cloud. It came when the Regional Council of Carpenters Union showed up to protest at the former Wonder Bread Factory, an 80,000 square foot factory located in the Historic Vistula that ARK is renovating.  The protest came as a complete surprise and was aimed at KCS Contracting, a contractor that I’ve hired to complete the carpentry.

Although disappointed the picketing took place at all, I have since sat down with Mike Gibson, Senior Representative Council of Carpenters and Dan Morey, Area Representative Council of Carpenters and had a successful meeting in which we discussed ways to move forward.

Then I read the opinion piece about me published April 6 in The Truth. The article was prompted as a response to the protest at the former factory.  The article came across as if I do not value workers’ rights, treatment and wages, which could not be further from the truth.

I was shocked by the words and phrases used to describe me and the situation involving me. For example, the article described me as “emotional” and the phrase “get in bed with” were used. Unfortunately, these sexist descriptions are commonplace when it comes to women in leadership roles. These words are never used to describe men occupying the same roles.

I thought those words to be ironic published in a newspaper titled “The Sojourner Truth,” a publication named after a former slave and women’s rights activist who in her “And, Ain’t I a Woman” speech said, “if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold.”

ARK Restoration & Construction, a minority-certified construction business, provides quality construction services for residential, industrial, and commercial clientele. As a locally-grown business, we support our workforce, many of whom are people of color, because ARK strives to provide economic opportunity for our family of employees.

As we wait for the Carpenters Union, the group which staged the well publicized protest outside our development to provide their minority workforce numbers, here are mine:

  • Nearly 50 percent of my workforce are Black
  • 30 percent are Women
  • With a combined 100+ years’ experience in construction, our team possess the skill, training, safety, and dependability for absolute customer satisfaction. We specialize in construction management, general contracting, masonry, carpentry, historic rehabilitations, and consulting. arktoledo.com
  • Our company has long utilized a healthy mix of both union and non-union workers for our projects.

To provide more in-depth context:  Last year, I was in opposition to legislation proposed by the Carpenters Local Union. I believed would negatively impact Brown and Black people from pursuing careers in construction. My advocacy was falsely characterized as anti-union, which is utterly false.

Instead of putting barriers in place, we should be building bridges for workforce entry. At the time my motivation was specific to one of my most loyal employees who rode a bike to work, the late Rayshard Brooks who lived close to ARK’s major project, the former Wonder Bread Factory. I was concerned that with the passage of the ordinance, Ray would not be able to access training facilities located outside of Toledo, a proposal in the legislation.

I was concerned about Ray’s ability to provide for his family and get his driver’s license and car one day.  I hire, mentor and meet people where they are, from the onset I knew I wanted to be the type of employer who not only provides a paycheck, but one who invests in the entire individual. Ray was able to get a license and a car after working with us for a couple months.   Although the ordinance did not pass, I was not able to help Ray entirely after all, he was shot and killed in Atlanta by police in a highly publicized incident in a Wendy’s parking lot. His death brings me great pain today.

I want to make it abundantly clear since ARK’s inception we have proudly partnered with both union and non-union local companies to foster a diverse workplace and ensure we are responsible developers. Every company involved with the project including KCS Contracting has taken the utmost care and safety precautions to ensure all employees are safe and the project is following every building code set forth.

The Lofts at WB is a groundbreaking development in the Historic Vistula neighborhood in Toledo that has long experienced disinvestment and structural barriers to capital and development. Moreover, it will attract additional investment and amenities to a community with residents, many of whom are Black or other people of color, that have faced racial and economic inequities.

The restoration of the building signifies the diverse nature of the Historic Vistula.  The building will be converted to 33 new apartments with office space on the first floor. The Wonder Bread project will greatly add to the economic development plans of The Downtown Area and the overall growth of our community and region.  The development of this historic building represents hope and progress and evidence of our community’s beautiful history.

I believe in supporting and championing causes that ensure the progression of the community, realizing that I can only do my small part, but it is worth doing nonetheless less. Every decision made I keep this top of mind, I currently mentor young ladies as well as volunteer and serve on several impactful boards, such as:

The Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce:  I believe in supporting businesses and championing causes to remove the hurdles and barriers that exist;

The University of Toledo Alumni Association:  I believe in the power of higher education and its influence over my own life;

The Toledo Warehouse District Association:  I believe we should have a strong downtown like other major cities, where people can choose to live, work and play, my work here helps revitalize the city;

Mosaic Ministries:  whose mission is to eradicate poverty in dire neighborhoods in Toledo through education and ministry.

I do not do this work for recognition, but rather to show what is possible for generations of Black and Brown little girls that will soon come after me.

I recently read a quote, “You can’t be what you can’t see” by Marian Wright Edelman.

The impossible is in fact possible, regardless of the industry or what is deemed an acceptable career path for women. To show we are more than the box that we are placed in. To normalize women leading as change agents for their communities and economic growth drivers.

Finally, I regret feeling as if I have to justify the sanctity of our project as a proud Toledoan investing in my community.  I remain committed to the progress of this project and ARK’s mission rings true today and every day thereafter to innovatively restore and build the communities we serve.

Ed. Note: The Lofts at WB will be completed and ready for occupants this fall, in October, says Ambrea Mikolajczyk. ARK Construction is running ahead of schedule. Apartment rent per month will range from $700-$2000. Readers can view apartment layouts, amenity information and additional cost details at wondertoledo.com. Readers can view the company’s entire apartment portfolio and availability at arkrealestateservices.com and specific information regarding our construction company at arktoledo.com. The leasing office’s phone number is 419-246-9693 and email is office@arktoledo.com.