Swinging the spotlight to black-owned businesses

Donna Terek
The Detroit News

Stephanie Dickey, owner of Stef-n-Ty One-of-a-Kind Hats and Clothing, sounds a little exasperated when she talks about media coverage of black-owned businesses in Detroit.

"You can't just come to Detroit and look at what the media puts out," she said. "People are starting to say, even people who are not from here, 'Where are all the black people?'

"We're not even showing up in the footage. This is an 80-something percent black city. I mean seriously, did we just fall off the planet?"

Good question.

From looking at national media coverage, who would suspect that of Detroit's 50,000 businesses, 32,000 are black-owned? That's a whopping 64 percent, according to 2007 U.S. Census figures, the most recent available.

Dickey has teamed up with a handful of other business owners and their patrons — so far they're all African-American women — to make the narrative reflect the stats. They formed the organization Us Too Detroit to bring attention to black-owned businesses in Detroit.

Their first project is to compile a directory of the small black-owned businesses in the city. At their second meeting, one of the women brandished the most recent copy of Detroit's Black Yellow Pages. It was published in 1994.

Since the Us Too Detroit Facebook page went up a couple of weeks ago, more than 100 businesses have posted their information, but that's just a fraction of the businesses the group wants to call attention to.

A question of survival

To Carole Watson, who started Us Too Detroit, promoting black-owned businesses is a question of survival.

"When I look at the renaissance of Detroit I see black businesses that do very well as far as product, as far as service, but they're drowning and I feel I haven't left Mississippi," she said. Watson, a retired Detroit Public Schools teacher, left the South for Detroit in the 1960s.

Debra McIntosh Rhodes, also a retired teacher from DPS, said she has always done the majority of her shopping in the city, especially at boutiques. "Many of us have supported small businesses in the city of Detroit and we're concerned about the number that we saw closing. So we had a conversation about what part we could play in supporting them and keeping them going."

The group wants to revive the shopping crawls they remember from the 1990s when a bus shuttled people from store to store. The first one is scheduled for April 18 and will cover some businesses on the lower east side between downtown and Grosse Pointe Park.

Then on the third Saturday of each month, they'll focus on a different neighborhood, including Southwest Detroit, to build appreciation of "brown-owned" businesses too.

"We don't want to exclude anyone," said Watson. "We want to include everyone."

As an educator and a long-time patron of minority-owned businesses, Watson wants Us Too to inform people across the city and the suburbs about the great businesses — retail and otherwise — Detroit has to offer.

"If we can give people the opportunity to see what's available, then they can make an informed decision about where to spend their money."

Reality check

Ken Harris, president of the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, says the the lack of attention to black-owned businesses is not just a perception. It plays out, not only in the media, but in access to financial resources for those businesses.

One exception is the New Economy Initiative (NEI) grants funded by a consortium of local and national foundations to help build a network of support for entrepreneurs in Detroit. The 2014 winners included African-American owners of traditional businesses like dry cleaners and light manufacturing. Of the 30 winners of $10,000 grants, 73 percent were minority-owned, as were three of the four People's Choice award winners, and one of the two winners of $100,000 grants.

While his organization supports the NEI and he applauds the effort to balance the scales, Harris said the amounts can seem paltry compared to capital investments in downtown startups.

"A $10,000 grant is very different from a $1.2 million capital infusion into a downtown white tech firm; that's enough to build infrastructure and create jobs," he said. "The smaller grants get you some facade improvements, or you buy a couple of cellphones and computers and your $10,000 is gone.

"The fact is, the majority of businesses in the neighborhoods have been essentially ignored in terms of capital access, the polar opposite of firms being subsidized in the downtown and Midtown economic corridor."

Black vs. white or old vs. new?

It's not that Felicia Patrick, owner of Flo Boutique, resents all the media reports about the openings of new batch brewers and distilleries, locally sourced cafes and artisanal bakeries.

It's that she thinks some of that spotlight should shine on long-established businesses, the ones that have hung on in the city for years through good times and bad.

"I don't think it's so much a black/white issue as a new business/old business issue where the newer businesses get all the attention," she said. Her clothing store has thrived on Willis Street in Midtown for 15 years and she remembers the 15 minutes of fame it got in its early days.

Dickey of Stef-n-Ty agrees. But she said people need to realize "everything is not just centered in downtown and Midtown. There's a whole big city of stuff going on.

"I don't think we're going to solve all the problems of making the two Detroits mesh," she said, "but I think it's a step in that direction just for us to speak up."

About the business crawl

Us Too Detroit's business crawl will be the third Saturday of each month starting on the lower east side of Detroit on April 18. Check their Facebook page for details: