Gary to launch project to aid business growth Clay St. is first stop in county initiative to revive communities

January 29, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

Local officials will tour the Clay Street business community today. In all likelihood, it won't take very long.

County Executive John G. Gary is making the visit to prove that very point -- and to set a backdrop for today's unveiling of his Small Business Initiative program. The first of its kind in the county, it is to help new entrepreneurs from the county's poorer neighborhoods.

The Clay Street community will be the first test. Community activists and officials hope the area, whose once-thriving commercial hub has shrunk to a handful of stores, will flourish with the influx of business owners and patrons.

"Businesses used to be at the heart of this community," said Lisa Ritter, Mr. Gary's spokeswoman. "We want to help people who have great business ideas but can't realize those plans. So we're starting here."

Under the program, the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. will use $100,000 this year to offer advice, loans, start-up grants and other small-business assistance, said Dean Johnson, the city alderman who represents the Clay Street area.

"What they're doing is simply returning a commercial life that was ripped out of the community during urban renewal in the late 1960s," Mr. Johnson said.

The neighborhood was transformed in those years when bulldozers and city planners razed entire blocks. Now the community's 350 homes are isolated from the city and troubled by crime and unemployment.

The neigh-borhood's residents are used to promises of help from the government -- but they have seen little change over the years. So it's not surprising that some are greeting Mr. Gary's plan with skepticism.

Norvain Sharps, 65, a Clay Street businessman since 1953, counts five businesses in a neighborhood that once bustled with 13 liquor stores, four grocery stores, several nightclubs, doctors offices and even a hotel.

"The area's not like it used to be once upon a time," said Mr. Sharps, who runs the community's only laundromat. "I don't know what business would be profitable coming in here."

But county officials say they already have gotten requests for the new small-business program -- particularly the advice its consultants will give.

"This is not job training. This is not work training. This is to help businesses be viable and grow," said Rosemary Duggins, the corporation's marketing director. "Giving people information is essentially what this is about."

The county has hired Ralph Blakeney, a small-business adviser with the Annapolis company, Peak Performance Technologies, to dole out advice on everything from bookkeeping to networking from a storefront office in the neighborhood at 80 West St.

Mr. Blakeney will teach business start-up classes and meet with entrepreneurs to help them draft plans and apply for loans.

"Having someone literally in the community provides a little more help than the standard announcement that a new government program is available," Ms. Ritter said of the county's program. "We hope this will be a little more direct -- and give the people who live there more attention."

The program uses a variety of tools, including the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. "microloan" program, which provides up to $25,000 to individuals whose lack of collateral or business experience would rule out standard bank loans.

And it also enlists the help of retired businessmen from Westinghouse and the county's other major companies through the Service Corps of Retired Executives.

Even academics will get involved. David Palmer, who heads the Small Business Development Institute at Morgan State University's business school, will organize graduate students and professors to hold business seminars in the neighborhood in March. Before then, the group will distribute about 2,000 questionnaires to determine residents' job interests, backgrounds and skills.

"We go to areas that need to be jump-started," he said. "It's like a self-help program for people who may sort of be feeling lost."

Mr. Palmer has run similar programs at public housing developments in Baltimore, including the Lexington Terrace community, where he helped tenants identify a skill they shared. From that meeting came a company the residents called Soul Food Cooking.

"They were reluctant to go into business by themselves, so we organized a corporation and they formed a catering company together," Mr. Palmer said.

Community activists who will help spread the word about the new program say Clay Street is ripe for a similar success story.

"This area at one point was full of nothing but small businesses," said Kirby McKinney, director of the Annapolis Youth Services Bureau. "I can't see any reason why it can't happen again."

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