Alonzo Brown has known for years how to make money from the economic engine that drives Cherry Hill's public housing projects.
Having lost a job after high school graduation, Brown got cash by selling cocaine and heroin. Easy money, but hard work, he said.
When he realized Cherry Hill lacked convenience stores, he began selling groceries to residents from a bus he bought for $200. Harder work, he said.
But Brown, 35, said neither job compares with his bumpy journey from a convicted drug felon in a Maryland adult boot camp to the proud owner of an athletic apparel store started with the help of a federally backed small business loan.
"Most people looked at me as a criminal and cut me down before I had a chance," Brown said. "But nine years of just waiting and crying and stress is gone."
Yesterday, Brown held a grand opening ceremony for his store, Bird 33 Sportswear in Cherry Hill Town Center, adding another piece to an ambitious 18-month-old community redevelopment effort.
Part of a $5.5 million shopping center built by Catholic Charities last summer, Brown's 3,000-square-foot store sells name-brand athletic wear to residents who previously had to travel miles to buy Nike sweat shirts or Kenneth Cole jeans.
Three dozen government officials attended yesterday's ribbon-cutting ceremony and hailed Brown as an adult boot camp success-story and a community leader.
Brown, however, is frustrated by Small Business Administration rules that deny loans to some former convicts. He says it hampers inner-city development and inhibits criminal rehabilitation.
Born in New Jersey, the fifth of six children, Brown was 13 when his mother moved the family to public housing in the 3400 block of Spelman Road. A smart, articulate teen-ager who enjoyed saving money, Brown was a fan of Boston Celtics' Larry Bird in an era when most black teens were drawn to Michael Jordan.
When Brown broke his leg a few days after graduation in 1983 from Southern High School, he lost his grass-cutting job of two years and became a dope pusher.
"I was devastated," Brown said. "I already had obligations -- an apartment, car payment."
Brown set up a cocaine and heroin business in the Cherry Hill projects. But when he received a $4,000 accident settlement he decided to buy a bus and sell loaves of bread instead of $20 bags of cocaine.
It was in the dilapidated bus that Brown began sketching plans for an athletic store. He would name it after Larry Bird and his jersey number: Bird 33.
By 1989, Brown started dealing drugs again "to get money faster to get to the shoe store," he said. He was arrested on drug manufacturing and distribution charges.
To shorten a 4-year jail sentence, Brown attended a Jessup boot camp in 1991 that he described as physically exhausting but very supportive of his business goals.
Brown was paroled after six months and began attending a boot camp after-care program where he honed his business skills and met Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, then a Baltimore delegate.
"I knew then Alonzo was not going back" to jail, Cummings said yesterday at the ceremony. "He immediately became not only a visionary but a missionary."
Brown and some friends applied for a federally backed loan to launch his business. He was told he could not get a loan while on parole.
Brown pleaded with court officials to reduce his parole. They refused. Instead of returning to the streets, Brown got a job cleaning downtown office buildings at night and a clerical post at the Baltimore Teachers Union.
When his parole ended in 1995, Brown teamed with the Baltimore-based lender, Development Credit Fund, which loans about $3 million a year to inner city start-up businesses, to search for additional funding sources. In a public-private partnership, a $175,000 loan was arranged, including money from the state, city and Nike athletic wear. But last summer, the SBA, which had to insure the loan, again denied Brown for character flaws, he said.
"I don't think a person should have to pay forever for a crime he did in the past," Brown said. He, along with Cummings and SBA officials appealed the decision, which was reversed in August.
Brown hopes to have the policy changed, but in the meantime, he is focusing on changing Cherry Hill. He employs only Cherry Hill residents and sponsors a youth basketball league.
Though in a zip code where more than a quarter of the households have incomes less than $20,000 a year, he is undaunted by statistics showing 80 percent of small businesses fail within three years.
"That is a statistic, a statistic is made to be broken," Brown said. "I worked entirely too hard to get this, so I am here to stay for a long, long time."