Helping Minority

October 13, 1994|By Shirley Leung | Shirley Leung,Sun Staff Writer

Godfrey Blackstone remembers when Annapolis was full of black-owned businesses.

Today those mom-and-pop grocery stores, restaurants and others have disappeared, and for years people have lamented the decline of the African-American business community.

In June, Mr. Blackstone, a 69-year-old city native, tired of the talk and used $500,000 of his own money to create the county's first "incubator" aimed at helping minority-owned companies get started.

The self-made businessman bought a 3,000-square-foot building at 2563 Forest Drive and named it the Ganderco Business Center. The title combines his name along with the names of his wife and son.

"What we needed was to raise the profile of the African-Americans in the city of Annapolis," Mr. Blackstone said. "People who are in government or in business would say, 'I don't do business [with minorities] because I don't see them.' "

An incubator provides office, administrative services and resources at a low cost. Businesses such as those involved in the service industry, light manufacturing and technology, can use an incubator until they're self-sufficient.

Mr. Blackstone said he has run advertisements about the center in the newspapers, distributed fliers and told people in the business community, but so far no entrepreneurs have come to use his center, which is open to all small business owners. He has, however, rented conference rooms for political and county functions.

To generate more interest in the center, the county held its third annual Salute to Minority Business there Tuesday night. About 100 people attended.

Each year the county recognizes six outstanding minority entrepreneurs. This year Mr. Blackstone, a lifelong businessman who has owned and operated a construction company, a used car dealership and liquor store, was among those recognized.

"I believe if we all work together this night will be remembered as when we turned around this county -- where small businesses can come to be viable businesses," he told the crowd.

Officials and the business community say the county needs a center for fledgling minority businesses.

"The minority businesses I've talked to say they are extremely disappointed with the resources in the county," said Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden.

Joanne Jackson, coordinator of the county's Minority Business Enterprise Program, said many minority-owned businesses work out of their homes and are not visible to the community and potential clients.

The Ganderco center has desks, private offices, conference rooms, faxes, computers and a receptionist to answer the phones. Mr. Blackstone also will provide a network of business contacts.

According to the National Business Incubation Association, the incubator concept began in the 1970s as a way to use abandoned factories and develop partnerships with universities. Incubator projects have grown thirtyfold since the mid-1980s. There are more than 500 nationwide. About 25 are aimed at developing minority businesses.

Maryland has about a dozen incubator projects, half of them focused on nurturing hi-tech companies. Only one in the metropolitan area, Baltimore's Park Heights Development Corp. is geared toward helping minorities, said Luwanda W. Jenkins, executive director of the Governor's Office of Minority Affairs.

While county officials welcome Mr. Blackstone's project, they say sustaining such centers is a difficult undertaking.

"The jury's out," said Michael S. Lofton, executive vice president of the county Economic Development Corp. "Incubators are challenging to do well."

Shelly M. Gross-Wade, incentive fund manager for the county economic development corporation, said aggressive marketing, community support and education are needed to make incubators thrive.

"The community doesn't understand the concept of an incubator," she said.

Because not all businesses are required to register, no one knows how many businesses in the county are owned by minorities or women. Ms. Jackson estimates there may be at least 600 such businesses. About 10,000 businesses are in the county.

Mr. Blackstone said he is undeterred by the slow response. "I expect what I get. I'm an old military man. I plan for the worst and hope for the best," he said. "Some people carry placards. Some people get on the soapbox. But we are here to go to work."

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