Arundel group an advocate for black-owned businesses

Chamber of Commerce set for recruitment effort

February 19, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

When the Rev. Walter E. Middlebrooks convened a group of Anne Arundel County clergymen and women last spring to discuss economic issues facing the African-American community, they found they had some common concerns.

They talked about how black-owned firms received only about 7 percent of last year's county contracts and slightly more than 1 percent of the school system's contracts. They tossed around the idea of asking government officials to conduct disparity studies. Several people left the meeting convinced that they needed to create an entity that could give aid to black businesses and lobby for changes.

The result was the formation of the Black Chamber of Commerce of Anne Arundel County, which is gearing up this month to recruit members from the 300 to 400 black-owned businesses it estimates are in the county. Among the group's goals is to push for state legislation to make it easier for minority firms to put up bonds for contracting - an obstacle for many.

"The numbers do not speak well," said Middlebrooks, the chamber's president and pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Annapolis. He said he was disappointed that black-owned firms received only $8 million from the county, out of a total $110 million, and $1.2 million from the school system, which paid contractors $95 million last year.

"Obviously, $9.2 million from the county [and school system] ... is not a good return on the number of dollars that African-Americans pump back into the county in taxes," he said.

The coalition is not the first to try to lend a hand to African-American businesses in the county. Two decades ago, a group of African-American entrepreneurs formed an association to advocate for black business interests in the region.

But the Southern Maryland chapter of the National Business League petered out after a few years because of a lack of involvement from its members, mostly struggling small-business owners.

Anne Arundel County's population is 13.6 percent African-American, according to the 2000 census. Five years ago, the last time economic census figures were released, black-owned businesses made up 6 percent of all firms based here. Advocates estimate numbers have gone up since then, as more African-Americans have moved into the county from Baltimore and Washington.

Since the chamber was incorporated in September, its directors have met with County Executive Janet S. Owens, schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith, Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer and economic development officials to discuss the chamber's goals.

`Laying the foundation'

"We are laying the foundation," Middlebrooks said, explaining why the chamber so far has focused on making itself known in political circles rather than increasing its membership of about 25 companies. "We want to be able to say to business owners, `This is what we have done, and this is what we will be doing.'"

Middlebrooks said the chamber does not intend to compete with the 1,400-member Annapolis and Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce. Members will be encouraged to join both chambers.

Bob Burdon, president of the city-county chamber, said he plans to work with the new chamber and understands the African-American community's desire to have its own business association. African-American entrepreneurs often start out with little capital or experience, which makes it difficult for them to obtain loans, win public contracts or put up the bonds necessary to obtain contracts, advocates say.

Need for an advocate

"These impediments become a Catch-22," said Carl O. Snowden, a community activist and Owens aide who is on the new chamber's board of directors. "There is no question that there is a need for a strong advocate speaking to the needs of that community and those businesses."

Snowden pointed to the absence of an African-American-owned bank or major hotel in the county as evidence that officials have not encouraged enough growth among black businesses.

"African-Americans are beginning to look at not only their political situation, but their economic situation," he said. "People are beginning to ask why African-American businesses are not doing as good as they could be."

Unlike the state of Maryland, the city of Baltimore and Prince George's County, Anne Arundel County does not require that a percentage of contracts be granted to minority-owned businesses. The county's purchasing office has a staff member, Joanne Jackson, who assists minority businesses seeking county contracts.

Still, the county in recent years has increasingly awarded contracts to minority- and women-owned firms - 16 percent last year, up from 9 percent in 2000, according to county officials. The school system has a goal of awarding 14 percent of contracts to minority firms, which it surpassed last year.

But advocates say the numbers may not reflect the disparity in the percentage of contracts given to African-American-run firms vs. those owned by women or other minorities.

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