Nurturing minority businesses

April 19, 1994

Almost any economic development is worth pursuing, but minority economic development is especially worthy. It shows a community's commitment to creating opportunities for those who might otherwise not have them. And it is an added plus to any jurisdiction's efforts to generate jobs and a healthy economy.

For a while, Howard County's effort in this area seemed on the skids. The county's economic development office was in a state of flux, including its transition to a quasi-public development authority and a rapid turnover of directors. Moreover, the authority's director, Richard W. Story, was embroiled in controversy when he fired the department's only black employee amid questionable circumstances.

Deborah Jenkins was let go after an evaluation that was critical of her role as a liaison to the Equal Business Opportunity Committee, an adjunct of the development office. The evaluation ZTC suggested that her work with the committee "has not been productive." It criticized the committee as "directionless" and several of its members as "counter-productively free-lancing or . . . avoiding assignments."

In response, Ms. Jenkins filed a discrimination complaint. Since then, there has been little meeting of the minds over Ms. Jenkins' firing or the alleged failings of the committee, which members refute.

There has been, however, an apparent agreement to move forward with the important work of minority economic development. County Executive Charles I. Ecker and the chairman of the Economic Development Authority, Richard H. Pettingill, helped to defuse the situation by extending an olive branch.

Both men last week sought to assure minority business leaders that they had the county's support and praised the committee's work. As part of the package, Mr. Ecker promised space in new office facilities for a resource center for minority businesses.

But the proof will be in the pudding. A new Equal Business Opportunity Commission, which will oversee Howard's efforts to improve the climate for minority businesses, is a fledgling enterprise and needs the support of all parties. A trade fair exposition planned for later this year will highlight county businesses owned by racial minorities, women and the disabled. Carrying out those projects should be enough to keep everyone focused on the key goal: nurturing minority businesses.

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