Empowerment zones to get free advice

American Express, Morgan State join to help businesses grow

January 23, 2001|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

American Express Financial Advisors Inc. and Morgan State University have signed on to help jump-start and expand businesses in Baltimore's federally funded empowerment zones.

The financial services company and historically black university will play a mostly advisory role. In exchange for office space, counselors from both organizations will give business advice for free.

Baltimore became one of six cities in 1994 to receive millions of dollars in federal money under a empowerment zones program aimed at revitalizing impoverished communities.

Since then, more than 130 businesses have started or expanded, creating more than 4,000 jobs in East, West and southern Baltimore, according to the Empower Baltimore Management Corp., which oversees the zones. Though some critics have said progress has been slow, empowerment zone officials hope the new relationships will build on their strengths.

"This program has not been good for splashy superficial projects," said James Shea, Empower Baltimore Management Corp. board chairman. "Progress comes from brick-by-brick building."

Morgan State's Small Business Development Institute has a long-standing partnership with Baltimore's empowerment zone program, having helped many business owners develop business plans for financing. The university will do much of the same, but will work on-site for the first time.

American Express brings a new arm to the empowerment zone by working with businesses in more advanced stages, officials said. The company may help a business owner who wants to expand or wants to spend money more efficiently.

"We find that businesses are good at what they do - running their business, but not at managing their finances or reaching their financial goals," said Dwayne Grady, a financial adviser with American Express. "As business go into different phases, they have different needs."

American Express plans to eventually offer financial advice to residents in the empowerment zones. More than 600 people have received closing costs grants to buy homes since the zones were created.

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