Area among leaders in black firms

City, Prince George's rank near the top nationwide


Fueled by a swelling black middle class in a state whose economy relies on small contractors and federal jobs, Baltimore and Prince George's County ranked among the leaders in the nation for African-American entrepreneurs, according to new census data released yesterday.

They are software specialists who fled corporate life to strike out on their own, builders attracted by Maryland's growth and first-time entrepreneurs such as Vonzell Mattocks, a retired Marine.

Mattocks could have owned a professional staffing business franchise in Washington or conveniently near his home in Northern Virginia. But the chance to set up shop near Andrews Air Force Base, encircled by government agencies seeking employees, drew him to what he called "Little Atlanta."

"I knew Prince George's County is up and coming," he said. "All around me is this economic boom. For the next 10 years, this area is going to continue to blossom."

With nearly 30,000 black-owned businesses, Prince George's had the fourth-largest number of black-owned businesses among counties nationwide. Baltimore, with nearly 10,000, placed ninth among U.S. cities, according to 2002 data, the most recent figures available.

From 1997 to 2002, the number of black-owned businesses grew 45 percent, blacks established businesses at a rate four times greater than the national average this period -- increasing by 45 percent, according to the study.

Maryland, with its strong economy, ranked sixth in the number of black businesses.

"This is very significant. It shows that African-Americans are starting to understand capitalism and what makes this country tick," said Harry C. Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

"When you develop businesses, you secure job opportunity and improve your quality of life. That means wealth building and asset building. That's Americana."

For entrepreneurs and economists, the news indicates that certain social barriers have collapsed, allowing black businesses to thrive.

Baltimore entrepreneurs said they see the growth as a sign that the city's decades-long exodus of middle-class professionals has not eroded economic opportunity. The figures provide hope, they say, for a more prosperous future.

Prince George's professionals said the numbers bolster the region's reputation as a center of black opportunity.

Many professionals in the nation's wealthiest predominantly black county have become successful entrepreneurs by taking advantage of government contracts.

Sharon R. Pinder, director of the Governor's Office of Minority Affairs, said Maryland is a natural leader in black-owned business with a population that is 27 percent African-American.

"Maryland's economy is based upon small businesses. Of those, many are minority- and women-owned," she said. "The success of those businesses is paramount to the success of the economy."

The growth of black businesses in Maryland mirrors what took place nationwide. The end of the technology boom sparked business growth, continuing in 2001 and 2002, despite the recession, said Anirban Basu, an economist and chief executive officer of the Sage Policy Group.

After years of population loss, Baltimore struggled to keep pace with places such as Atlanta and Detroit. But the city is catching up, partly because of an overall resurgence in its economy, said Basu. From 1997 to 2002, the number of black-owned businesses in the city increased from 7,255 to 9,764.

Some suggest that the city has struggled to foster even more African-American business growth because of entrenched discrimination, despite a population that is 65 percent black.

"In Baltimore there has been a feeling that incumbent businesses have not been particularly friendly to new businesses, and especially black-owned business," Basu said. "There is still an old boy's network in this town."

But successful entrepreneurs will find a way, he said.

Raymond V. Haysbert, former head of the old Parks Sausage Co. -- once Baltimore's largest minority-owned business -- said decades ago that blacks were excluded from Baltimore's biggest industries, including those around the port, its most valuable asset.

"After a group has been excluded for years, they aren't going to have the expertise to compete," he said. "It's been slow."

Meanwhile, the proximity of Prince George's County to Washington leads to more opportunities, Haysbert said.

"The Washington area has so many government-related businesses, anyone who wants to succeed there can," he said.

Prince George's -- a source of pride for its relatively affluent majority-black population -- is attracting more and more entrepreneurs.

"Pride is important, but pride by itself doesn't help you make payroll," Basu said. "You need a market that is thick with business opportunities. You need a population that has the capacity to exploit those opportunities. And that's what you have in Prince George's. And, to a smaller extent, that's what you are seeing in Baltimore."

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