Erie County Legislature April Baskin spoke the truth recently when she said it: Many minority business owners just aren’t ready.
Hard truth, yes. But truth.
She was speaking about the idea that local businesses such as La Nova Pizza, Lloyd Taco and Rachel’s are among the fortunate ones to have won food concessions at Highmark Stadium.
Baskin, an African American and chairwoman of the Legislature, explained in simple terms why minority businesses do not receive those lucrative contracts. At least partly, it is about readiness, or lack thereof.
Businesses must meet capacity and certification requirements to bid on large projects. It means getting from A to Z. Such knowledge is acquired as one might construct the foundation of a house – one brick at a time.
The businesses many point to that seem to have that solid foundation have also had the good fortune to accumulate and share knowledge through generational expertise – from grandfather to son to grandchild.
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So what do you do when that generational wealth gap of knowledge and resources is lacking, largely due to systemic inequities plaguing a segment of the underrepresented population?
The new “Level Up” program offers one answer. The idea is to provide training to small but already established minority businesses. It is welcome and sorely needed attention, given the ambitious goals of the Bills stadium agreement.
Among those goals is for women- and minority-owned to businesses to account for 30% of those involved in construction and operation of the $1.54 billion facility. But, as Baskin said, that’s not worth much if those businesses aren’t eligible to bid.
Established East Side favorites such as Lee’s Barbecue, Mattie’s and Gigi’s depended on that one, critical person who was running everything from the kitchen to the front of the house. When these owners died or gave up the business, no successor was ready to step in.
The example cited in The News, and one remembered by those who watched it happen, involved the son of Gigi’s late owner Blondine Harvin. An article in 2019 chronicled Darryl Harvin’s heartfelt acknowledgement that he had “some understanding of the restaurant business, but not enough to handle what was presented to me.”
“Level Up” promises training and support. The program offers an education about processes and procedures, teaching aspiring business entrepreneurs how to navigate the state minority business certification process, for example. It helps the business owners wade through what might seem an insurmountable amount of paperwork and bureaucracy. The hand being offered through this program could be the one that keeps the neophyte business owner from drowning.
So, why now? After all this time? The May 14, 2022, massacre at Tops Markets on Jefferson Avenue that left 10 Black residents dead opened some eyes to inequities and despair. It had been there before, in plain sight. But the murders brought together people of all colors and backgrounds who want to help create positive outcomes for the very people the gunman sought to destroy.
The pilot Level Up program will sunset at the end of this year, to be replaced with a full-fledged program that will take on 10 new businesses a year. The goal is for each business that enters the program to gain the needed certification, experience and support to bid on major corporate projects, including the Bills stadium, within one-to-two years.
It is a worthy goal and one that should go a long way in bridging the entrepreneurial wealth gap.
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