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Rod Watson: 'Grow your own’ to make businesses sprout on East Side

When "build it, and they will come" doesn’t apply, you try another approach: Grow your own by focusing on the folks already there.

That means building around people like Jermaine Scott, who wants to open another car wash to complement the one his father operates at Jefferson Avenue and Broadway.

Or like Angela Borden, who wants to expand the Angel Lights home decor business she runs out of her Durham Avenue house.

Or like Lisa Wilson, a retired Buffalo police officer who wants to better market her Candy Creations business.

The three were among 20 graduates of the inaugural training program to help aspiring or existing small-business owners learn what it takes to start or grow a business that can fill a need on Buffalo’s East Side.

The 11-week program, sponsored by the Community Action Organization of Erie County and the PathStone Enterprise Center, brought various experts to the CAO’s Alphonso "Rafi" Green Jr. Masten Resources Center on Fillmore Avenue. They addressed everything from cleaning up a credit history to developing a business plan to getting financing — long a vexing issue for African-Americans. But PathStone itself — as a community development financial institution — provides financing up to $250,000 or $50,000 for startups, said business development officer Jonathon Ling.

The entrepreneurial effort builds on other CAO initiatives, including a $300,000 facade improvement program, new pennants and signs to highlight the district and work to turn block clubs into homeowner associations that can govern what occurs in their neighborhood. The goal, said Executive Director L. Nathan Hare, is a macro effort to eliminate poverty in the Martin Luther King Jr. Park area and create a "branding of the community."

"To help grow that, we need more businesses," Hare said.

Scott — who’s already in talks with a bank — wants to add at least one, building on what his 83-year-old father started 54 years ago.

"I'm trying to come right behind him and start my own," he said, after getting his graduation certificate from the class, where he worked with Ling on a business plan and learned that "marketing is good, but networking is even better."

The class taught Borden how to expand the territory where she markets her decorative lights, which can adorn everything from flowers to walls. Her goal, after completing the class, is to finish her business plan and seek financing to move the enterprise from her home into a shop.

Wilson said the class helped her finish her business plan and learn to better market her company, which sets up elaborate candy displays at birthday parties, anniversaries, weddings and other celebrations.

With small businesses accounting for 43 percent of private-sector payroll and two-thirds of new private-sector jobs, according to the Small Business Administration, it is a key to making the East Side share in the rest of Buffalo’s resurgence. While the Tops supermarket that opened on Jefferson in 2003 was a welcome addition, it was not a magic bullet that instantly spurred spinoff development. The magic will come from the people living there who don’t buy into the stereotypes outsiders might still hold about the neighborhood and the people who live there.

One of those misperceptions is that African-Americans don’t want to do things for themselves. This effort proves otherwise.

As CAO program director Samuel L. Radford III put it, the graduates show that "we can do, we will do and we are doing."

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