Bankole: Those in Detroit before boom offer insights
They may not be on the big stage today talking to business influencers about the revival of the city. They are not the thought leaders called upon to offer an economic outlook on where Detroit ought to be in the next decade. They don’t normally get the spotlight as others do.
But small businesses like the Detroit Seafood Market in downtown Detroit, The Black Dress in Midtown and Shantinique Music store on the city’s east side represent countless businesses that have been quietly building for years before the new economic boom. They are some of the businesses that helped to keep Detroit’s entrepreneurial spirit going long before the comeback became fashionable.
And despite the challenges of the economy, they have been resilient and adapted to the changing landscape because they believe in Detroit and what the future holds for this misunderstood American city.
“The restaurant opened back in 2010 because I felt there was a need to be part of the city’s growth and to help improve lives through the many Detroit residents we hire to work for us,” said Kenny Akinwale, owner of the Detroit Seafood Market. “Today we hire between 30 to 33 people, most of whom live in the city. We have been a thriving business for the last eight years despite the fact that we’ve had our own challenges.”
Akinwale, who has had a long career in the food industry in senior leadership roles, said small businesses like his must be viewed as an integral part of the city’s revival.
“There is no question that the growth of small businesses have an impact on the overall economic growth of the city,” Akinwale said. “Sometimes people tend to underestimate the fact that small businesses are the lifeblood of the community.
“We are very hopeful about the city and where it is going. We see ourselves as part of the success of Detroit and we continue to present tangible job opportunities for our workers and great customer service for our clients.”
As the city continues to recover, the role that small businesses play will take on even more added significance.
Take, for example, a 2016 report by JPMorgan Chase and the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City that examined the big impact of small businesses in five cities — Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Detroit — as it relates to urban job creation.
According to the 18-page report, Detroit leads the rest of the cities in the need for more small business jobs to address an unemployment crisis that is hampering revitalization efforts.
“Cities need to make sure that there is a supportive business environment in inner cities for small businesses. This includes upgrading infrastructure (buildings, technology and transportation), reducing crime and adding amenities,” the report stated. “This will require city leaders to adopt new tools and a comprehensive small business plan. Small business support in most cities is an uncoordinated, unfocused set of programs implemented by a disparate group of private and public organizations.”
Detroit has rolled out some efforts like the Motor City Match to help small businesses thrive, but it remains to be seen if such actions have had a profound and overall positive impact on the small business landscape.
“We’ve had to do this on our own without any outside financial support. We are definitely bootstrapped up, used our personal savings and found creative ways to raise money to keep our business going,” said Marci Lewis, co-owner of The Black Dress, a clothing boutique in the rapidly growing Midtown.
Lewis, who comes from an information technology background and her mother Sandra L. Allen, a seamstress, founded the store in 2008.
“It feels great to be in Midtown. We moved here before all of the action started taking place,” Lewis said. “I feel safe. With the combination of Wayne State University Police Department and Detroit police we feel protected.”
But Lewis remains resilient, and keeps a measured and positive economic expectation of the city, while underscoring the fact that small businesses are the anchor of economic development.
“Part of the solution to crime and poverty is employment. People feel empowered if the support is there and they will start to flourish,” Lewis said. “I would like to see more effort in recruiting our young African-American men as entrepreneurs. That would help build a healthy community.”
Resources to support those who want to start their own businesses should be accessible to all, Lewis said.
“A lot of people feel hopeless,” she said.
Despite the state of hopelessness, Barry Beal, owner of Shantinique Music store on the city’s east side, hasn’t given hope for 44 years that he’s been selling music records. He founded the business in 1974 and is today one of the last remaining music stores in Detroit.
“I just try to take advantage of the opportunity that is afforded to me and if you teach your customers good you don’t have to worry,” Beal said. “I always wanted to start my own business.”
A successful entrepreneur, Beal says his biggest era of selling music was when hip-hop burst into the music scene.
“I got so good that I could push six thousand records in one weekend,” Beal said. “We were making like $2.8 million a year in just selling music.”
About Detroit’s current trajectory, he says: “I like what I’m seeing.”
His customer base has become increasingly diverse as well.
He quickly adds, “But Detroit has a problem. You gotta get a handle on crime.”
Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.