Gwendolyn McFall wants to set up a nonprofit to help poor people find housing, but the Detroit resident said she's not sure how to navigate the process of starting an agency.

McFall was one of dozens of prospective entrepreneurs and small-business owners who gathered Thursday at the Northwest Activities Center on Meyer to take advantage of the resources offered at the Small Business Empowerment Fair.

 "I'm already active in the community, and I see a lot of people who really need access to housing, so I think if I were to set up a nonprofit, I'd be able to help them," McFall said. "I'm just not sure how to set up a nonprofit agency."

Representatives from city departments and other agencies that include the Office of Contracting and Procurement; Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department; and the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.'s Small Business Division were on hand to answer questions and help people like McFall get their projects off the ground.

Detroit City Councilwoman Janee Ayers, who cosponsored the event along with council President Brenda Jones, said the goal of the monthly symposiums is to help get more minority businesses in Detroit, particularly those that would contract with the city.

The lack of minority contractors has been a point of contention lately. On Monday, City Council members questioned the city's administration and its land bank about the lack of minority and city-based companies involved in city demolition projects.

Only about 28 percent of a 2014 $258 million federal award for demolition has gone to minority and women-owned businesses, said Tammy Daniels, demolition director for the land bank, during Monday's council hearing.

On Thursday, Ayers said the city plans to hold monthly Small Business Empowerment Fairs in all of the city's Council Districts.

"Our intention is to go to all of the council districts so we can help walk people through the process of either starting a business, or how to go through the bidding process," Ayers said. 

"Right now, the story is demolition; there just aren't enough minority contractors," Ayers said. "The talent is there, but people may not know all the steps toward either getting those businesses off the ground, or learning the proper steps toward contracting with the city."

When Ford Field was being built in the early 2000s, city officials complained some companies were using minorities and women as fronts, pretending they were the business owners.

Ryan Crigler of the city's Civil Rights Inclusion and Opportunity department said her job is to ensure representatives of companies claiming to be minority-owned are accurate.

"We check documents, taxes and do a site visit to ensure companies are what they say they are," Crigler said. "Just today, I did a site visit and the company was just a building. There was nothing else there. So we're double-checking."

Breakout sessions during Thursday's business fair walked participants through topics such as tax incentives, how to purchase city-owned property, zoning and facade improvements.

Mark Zorn, owner of McMan & Son Barber Shop in West McNichols, said he came to Thursday's fair hoping to get money to "make my business look better."

Zorn said he was introduced to a representative from Motor City Match, which partners with the city, Detroit Economic Growth Corp., U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, banks, foundations and corporations to help provide funding for small businesses.

"We'll see what happens," Zorn said. "It would be nice to make my place look better for my customers. You never know. I figured I might as well try (to get funding)."

Boysie Jackson, chief procurement officer for Detroit's Office of Contracting & Procurement, said helping people navigate the process of starting businesses and getting contracts is rewarding.

"The last outreach we had, there were 10 companies that ended up on the city bid list," he said. "There was one young man who had a landscaping company; he told me, 'I got a contract with the city.' He was so happy.

"That's what it's all about: Helping Detroiters," Jackson said.
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