Business development gets renewed attention in East Greensboro

by Jeff Sykes

Greensboro’s wealthiest citizens have come together to donate more than $30 million to build a performing arts center downtown. On the edge of the vibrant South Elm Street corridor there is talk of redeveloping three entire city blocks into “a visually attractive, safe, and vibrant destination for a broad range of users.”

That might leave some folks on Greensboro’s east side scratching their head wondering “if not now, when?” That jobs and commercial opportunities – grocery stores and quality retail chains – lack in east Greensboro is no secret. It’s often talked about and criticized by residents and community leaders alike.

But just what are the barriers to commercial development and employment and an improved quality of life in that community? Newly elected City Councilwoman Sharon Hightower is determined to get to the bottom of it.

Hightower has spearheaded the creation of the East Greensboro Committee, which city council approved at its March 4 meeting. Council members Jamal Fox and Yvonne Johnson will serve on the committee along with Mayor Nancy Vaughan. Hightower will serve as its chairperson.

“The plans are to focus on East Greensboro and to see what we can do to address housing needs and eco nomic development,” Hightower said. “We want to bring some focus and development to the area.”

Hightower said that the primary barriers to commercial development are lower income levels and high unemployment. But she was quick to point out that it is a misnomer to believe there is no market at all for new business.

“Those are fallacies that are not true when it comes to the viability of East Greensboro, but those are the reasons outsiders use,” she said. “We have disposable income and we like to shop.”

Marketing the eastside is another of the challenges that limit development and job creation, she said. Empowerment will be a major factor, with members of the community utilizing what she called “inside/outside local development.”

“We have a lot of small businesses in East Greensboro and we need to find a way to work with them and have some job creation,” Hightower said. “A lot of them need to understand how they can become a part of the solution in East Greensboro. You will have a better city when you begin to have equal development throughout the city.”

Beyond the stigma of crime and lack of opportunity that Hightower hopes to overcome, businesses in Greensboro’s historically African-American community face real hurdles to economic development. But with so much effort and talent ready to meet  with success, many believe things can improve in the near future.

That was certainly the pervasive attitude at the Gate City Minority Business Opportunity Fair held last week at the Khalif Event Center on East Wendover. In its third year, the fair is hosted by the East Market Street Development Corporation.

Phil Barnhill, director of operations for the development corporation, said the event is geared toward linking minority owned firms with opportunities to gain new business, especially with government contracting and large construction firms. For so many small businesses it is difficult to get on the radar of government and construction firms. The opportunity fair helps business owners meet the right people and understand the process involved in vying for those contracts.

Beyond just knowing how to compete for business, operational difficulties like financing, insurance, bonding and operational size can often keep a minority owned small business from growing.

Edward Timberlake has helped two businesses in east Greensboro overcome their capital needs by extending them startup loans or a line of credit through his work with The Support Center. Based in Raleigh, The Support Center works with existing federal partners to help historically underutilized businesses gain financial traction. The company has invested more than $6 million in 75 North Carolina companies, according to its 2013 annual report.

Timberlake said he has worked with a bakery and a general contractor in Greensboro, financing their business needs to allow for operational growth. The bakery moved from a home-based business into an established retail space. The general contractor secured a line of credit to allow his business flexibility between invoices.

“The biggest thing that these small businesses owners need is a lender that will be understanding and will lend a kind ear to their plight and be willing to take more of a risk than most traditional lenders,” Timberlake said. “The biggest thing we’ve found is that these people just need capital in order to grow.”

A graduate of N.C. A&T University, Timberlake said he had a lot of confidence in what could happen if the right things fall in place for east Greensboro. He reiterated that with so many programs in place, financial education and business literacy could greatly improve the immediate economy.

“There are lots of business owners in the Greensboro area that are looking for locations and they may not know that if they go over there then the city might give them some sort of incentive for opening in that area,” Timberlake said. “Traditionally there are people in the know and for those that are not in the know nothing is ever really done to make sure we are getting the message out.”

One of those clients is Joseph Wilson of ASJ Wilson Construction. Wilson operates a general contracting firm located near U.S. 29. His firm employs 12 people, but because of lack of business, the workers are on layoff. Wilson was hoping to make more contacts at the event to increase his business.

Success for his business would help the larger economy in east Greensboro. “It all stems from revenue being brought back into the community,” Wilson said. “It’s no big-time secret that when more minority businesses are in charge of projects then they hire more minority companies. That will bring more capital to the minority neighborhoods.”

Councilwoman Hightower hopes that with increased focus on small business development in the community that a corner will be turned and prosperity take hold. As businesses grow and the city finds a way to market east Greensboro to outside investors, Hightower said that jobs and prosperity should follow.

“It’s been a long-time coming and it’s finally here,” she said of the committee. “We are going to make it be productive and do some good things. We know it’s a jewel in the rough over here in east Greensboro.” !