Blair M. Duncan was named president and CEO of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone. Duncan, who previously served as executive vice president of the organization, takes his new position after Kenneth Knuckles recently announced his retirement from the position after 15 years.
“Blair has been an integral part of UMEZ over the years, and we are very excited to work with him in this new capacity,” said Joseph J. Johnson III, UMEZ board chairman and senior vice president, Goldman Sachs & Co. “We are confident that under his leadership, we will continue and expand upon the work that we’re doing as an organization to help revitalize the communities of Upper Manhattan while continuing to grow the relationships with small businesses, and more.”
Duncan said he is honored to have the opportunity to lead the organization. He joined UMEZ’s management team in 2003 where he first served as general counsel. Duncan will begin his new role July 1.
“This is an organization that has improved the economic well-being of our community,” he said. “I live in Harlem [and] raised my family here, so I’m personally and professionally invested here. I’m optimistic about the future and excited to have the opportunity to lead the organization forward.”
Duncan said the transition to his new position will be smooth because he has worked with Knuckles for the past 15 years. Moving up through the ranks of the organization, Duncan has been able to see all aspects of UMEZ’s mission.
One of Duncan’s major projects is the current redevelopment of the Victoria Theater in Harlem on 125th Street. The 400,000-square-foot structure is being turned into a hotel, mixed income residential building, retail space and cultural and arts space. UMEZ wants to bring hospitality jobs to the people living in the community.
“The role to CEO is something that’s going to be a different role,” Duncan said. “Building off of the experience that Ken has had and the outreach I’m trying to do; it’s going to be a smooth transition.”
As Harlem continues to change, UMEZ has been a key factor in maintaining the historically Black identity of the neighborhood by maintaining and creating cultural institutions. The organization is a community development financial institution giving small business loans to diverse borrowers.
Supporting small businesses also means jobs for the area, which has a 50 percent higher rate of unemployment than the rest of the city. Employment has always been a focus for Duncan and UMEZ.
“Jobs remains the focus of what we are trying to today,” he said. “There is growth going on around us. That will continue to be an important factor in terms of what we’re doing at the Empowerment Zone.”
Duncan has served on several boards of directors and committees in New York and Upper Manhattan, including the Harlem YMCA, the Helene Fuld College of Nursing and Lawyers Alliance for New York.
He is a member of the executive committee of the Wharton Club of New York. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Michigan, an MBA in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.