Race and Opportunity in Detroit: Black, Neighborhood Businesses Lose

Race and Opportunity in Detroit: Black, Neighborhood Businesses Lose

PART II

Ken Harris (Courtesy Photo)
Ken Harris (Courtesy Photo)

by Zenobia Jeffries
Special to the NNPA from The Michigan Citizen

There is a racial imbalance to opportunity and outcome in Detroit’s revitalization a recent report by a Wayne State University graduate demonstrates. “Detroit: Black Problems, White Solutions” reveals what many already believe: The beneficiaries of Detroit’s revitalization are mostly white — the minority, in a city where the majority population is 83 percent African American.

Most funding from foundations and philanthropic efforts, dedicated to encouraging art, entrepreneurial and other endeavors in Detroit, aren’t going to African Americans.

According to Ken Harris, president of the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, investment in Detroit lacks economic inclusion and the participation of minority-owned businesses. Harris says there needs to be an assessment and more data on the philanthropic commitment to Detroit’s neighborhoods.

“There are opportunities that exist in the neighborhoods that don’t exist downtown. The urban corridor has been neglected,” Harris told the Michigan Citizen. “There’s development downtown but without true sustainability — neighborhoods keep the city afloat.”

According to the MBCC, there are 32,000 commercial businesses in Detroit and most have between one to five employees. About 10 percent of those are chamber members.

“We can help invest in those businesses or provide resources to help them hire and grow,” says Harris. “If they can hire up to three or more people, you (would) have 100,000 people working in more jobs.”

Harris says the same approach used to find and recruit businesses to come downtown can be used in the neighborhoods. In fact, he says, there are economically viable areas such as the Avenue of Fashion on Livernois.

“Money should be knocking down their doors because they’re already established. Neighborhoods like Greenacres/Palmer Woods — where the Avenue of Fashion is located — the University District, Boston Edison, Rosedale Park, Indian Village and West Village, are all sustainable areas that have been ignored,” says Harris. “Until (philanthropy) connects with those who have businesses in the neighborhoods and the people with boots on the ground making it happen, we won’t truly be able to implement and execute economic policy that makes an impact.”

This month, NEI or the New Economy Initiative announced winners for its NEIdeas competition. The purpose of the award was to help neighborhood businesses. NEI gave 30 businesses with annual sales of less than $1 million a year, grants of $10,000 for business improvement.

Winners included House of Morrison, on the Avenue of Fashion, a shoe and leather repair business and GLEEOR, Inc., a landscaping and snow removal business. Both are African American family-owned, multigenerational businesses.

According to a demographic breakdown of recipients, 73 percent were minority and 60 percent woman-owned.

Dave Egner, NEI’s executive director, however, told the Detroit Free Press: “It’s all part of changing the culture now, particularly bridging the neighborhood-versus-downtown divide when we talk about the two Detroits.”

Harris says the investment in Detroit’s Black businesses and neighborhood businesses must be meaningful. “There’s a difference between job creation investment and curbside appeal or facade changes — grants for equipment and upgrades. We need substantial investment in our businesses that will help us create jobs,” he said. “I can get a grant for $10,000, but is that going to help me create jobs? What’s the difference between that and 1.2 million to a business downtown?”

Wayne StateUniversity Law Professor Peter Hammer says there has to be a new theory of economic development at play in Detroit — one that puts people at the center.

“The current approach is to put property at the center — a new casino, a new stadium,” said Hammer. “That didn’t stop the crisis but led to the crisis.”

Hammer has been critical of the city’s bankruptcy and the Plan of Adjustment to bring the city out of bankruptcy. He says just looking at the numbers — the bottom line — will not solve Detroit’s problems.

“(We have to look at) how do we build human capital, which takes you to the education system, creating entrepreneurial opportunities and job training,” Hammer told the Michigan Citizen.

Regarding Detroit’s “comeback,” Harris says hundreds of thousands of dollars are going to consultants but not to the organizations and people in the neighborhoods, “who are making things happen.”

Foundations and investment firms, he says need to reach out to these organizations. MBCC has been approached by some entities — but only for data scanning and surveying, for outside firms to get a landscape (of Detroit businesses), according to Harris.

“We have not been approached by anyone in the philanthropic or investment community to target African American businesses in the city of Detroit,” Harris said. “When you have outside groups coming in and not doing the day-to-day work, they approach the organizations doing the work but not working with or funding (them) to enhance the community.”

He added, “We do need to have a true economic assessment — a disparity study, so that we can truly monitor and find out where we are. When you have the data you’re able to help move the pendulum forward. It needs to be more than a social argument or justice argument but a data driven argument.”

Harris says the MBCC’s focus now is proactive economic policy.

Going forward, investment in commercial businesses and community organizations is necessary, says Harris. He and Hammer are proponents of community benefits agreements.

CBAs have been successful in other large cities such as Atlanta and Los Angeles.

Those programs have included job training and local hiring mandates, affordable housing, living wage and adherence to green environmental practices, among other community benefits.

“The mayor’s response to CBAs is throwback to the old ways of doing things,” Hammer says “(CBAs) connect new business opportunity to people already living here. (Developers should be asked) ‘How does your business benefit our community?’ and if they can’t answer maybe we don’t need them.”

Although Mayor Mike Duggan has not publicly stated his position on City Council’s CBA ordinance — called Urban Development Agreement ordinance — his administration informed media he agrees with the head of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation that it can entail unnecessary red tape.

Duggan spokesperson John Roach told the Metrotimes newspaper last month, “The Mayor hasn’t said much right now on the CBA because he is in ongoing discussions with City Council on the matter, however, he does agree with the concerns Rod Miller expressed in his letter to Council.”

Hammer says CBAs can be used as a screening device to prevent the exploitation of property.

NEI, Mission Throttle and Invest Detroit did not respond to several phone calls about their projects.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series that looks at the racial imbalance and inequity in the foundation funding to Detroit residents.