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VOL. 127 | NO. 19 | Monday, January 30, 2012

City Has Stake in Black Biz Success

The Memphis News

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What black businesses need is what all locally owned small businesses need – fewer bottlenecks and fewer middlemen steering out-of-town contractors and businesses to the “right people.”

Both are why, in 2009, after 18 years of an African-American mayor – the city’s longest serving mayor, Willie Herenton – black business revenues were just 1 percent of business revenues in Shelby County despite more black-owned businesses in Shelby County than white-owned.

To crash through formidable barriers that have stood since the days when racial segregation was law, it is perhaps tempting to take a single project and take a business leader by the hand and pull them through those barriers.

The intentions are sincere and it is hard to argue with the results when there aren’t that many big projects in the pipeline and a lot of daylight behind them at the other end.

But the barriers are still there after the ribbon cutting, handshakes and photo-ops. The barriers are still there with another – and current – African-American mayor, A C Wharton Jr.

The way ahead is not around but through these barriers and that is local government’s role in a process in which contracts are a vital but small piece of what is at stake. And while local government is helping with the barriers outside its domain, it can and should take on its own institutional barriers that have too often made minority business programs within government a process of culling those who don’t have the time or money to endure meaningless bureaucratic twists and turns. There are too many minority- owned businesses that have determined that the process isn’t worth it.

This must end because ultimately it involves taxpayer money and because an out-of-town contractor or business entity with the best intentions should not be expected to get MWBE (minority and women business enterprise) numbers and then know that that is not necessarily all of the minority-owned business community.

There is a difference between measuring results and getting in the way of results. To date, the alphabet soup of minority business compliance has been getting in the way far too often.

For outside businesses partnering with subcontractors it will invariably lead them to seek the shelter of past partners from other jobs in other states that they know the best. For those with less than honorable intentions, it is cover we give them. Wharton’s goal of expanding black business beyond older service industries into tech and manufacturing is essential and there is a model for it in what Carolyn Hardy did with what is now Blues City Brewery.

What the world outside Memphis calls minority-owned business is the majority of the business community. All of us have a stake in the prosperity of that community because it is our community.

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