2015: Any Room in the Money Inn?

James Robinson_opt
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the state of Detroit. I’ve been thinking about the new developments coming to the city and the role that African American businesses should have. At the same time I’ve lamented the lack of support and divisiveness among Black businesses themselves and the absence of a unified cohesive group that will speak powerfully and collectively on behalf of a real and credible African American engagement when it comes to economic opportunities in the city.
I attended a holiday reception recently in Birmingham at The Stand restaurant organized by an agency that does good work in Detroit. At the holiday gathering a former newspaper editor walked up to me and asked about Selden Standard, the newest restaurant in Midtown. His contention is that he witnessed an embarrassing and unfair situation with a Black patron at the restaurant. He was very curious about my view of all the “White” businesses popping up in Midtown and downtown. He continued over several sips of wine, sharing with me his honest opinions.
Because he is White I did not take it that he was patronizing me by saying things I would necessarily agree with as some would do because I’m Black. I’ve known him for a while. He’s concerned. We were in a neutral space away from Detroit: Birmingham.
But then it quickly dawned on me that there is a double standard. If I was going around asking what people thought about the “White” businesses in Midtown and downtown and the lack of diversity or Black participation in them as the former journalist put it to me at the restaurant, I would be accused of playing the race card. I would be told I’m reading too much into something that is not economically bad because Detroit needs all the help. That is the defense mechanism of the don’t-say-anything clique and the reluctant spook who sits at the door of the Money Inn refusing to add diversity to the agenda.
And if I insist that we use the microscope to separate fact from fiction and determine how many Blacks are at the table of economic equity in a rapidly booming Detroit, I would be brushed off as a race baiter.
But fortunately, the view of my friend, the former newspaper editor who decided to start this conversation is not a minority view. It’s in the majority, and it is a silent majority because it’s a question of who is expressing those views in the public domain before it is taken up by the powers that be.
It’s a matter of who is penning opinions on the need for real economic engagement before those who hold the economic levers and their counterparts in the political establishment agree to economic integration.
The reason why the feeling of isolation and exclusion on the part of many Blacks regarding what is happening in Midtown and downtown has fermented to this level is because we have settled for so-called credibility channels that derive their legitimacy from some false sense of emperical data that often work against public outcry for change. As long as the cries for economic diversity from the community does not meet our own credibility channels, nothing happens. Ignore it.
I’ve been to a lot of meetings and press conferences announcing sometimes the “Superbowl of economic opportunities,” when it really doesn’t include African American businesses and other minorities, including women.
Yet we are supposed to hold our hands up high and sing in unison “Detroit is coming back,” when that comeback has its own limitations and disadvantages.
The city is coming back for whom?
It is a fair question that anyone deeply invested in Detroit’s rejuvenation should ask themselves. It is a question coming from the streets — people who have been with Detroit through its trials and tribulations and never gave up on the city even before downtown started to become a Taj Mahal.
It is a question begging for resolution from the economic and the political ruling class and their institutional affiliations. Requesting that those who hold the purse strings open the gates of opportunity for Black business and other members of the unequal opportunity class in Detroit is not playing the race card.
It is simply beckoning to the conscience of the powerful to do the right thing. History has shown there is a lot of public good when the power structure — such as the economic titans — by virtue of their own conscience, readiness or sometimes under pressure and what makes economic sense, demonstrate willingness to provide access to capital for minority businesses to also thrive in the city.
The speed with which we are seeing restaurants and other small businesses operated by young White entrepreneurs emerge in the city doesn’t compare to the long road that Black business owners and others have to travel to first of all erect a fence around a prospective business before even opening shop.
Ready significant capital available to young White entrepreneurs in starting businesses in the city grants them a higher sustainable growth rate than their Black counterparts who sometimes have to pass the hat around to collect every penny and still it won’t be enough to jump start a business. Notwithstanding, there have been successes with some Black business entrepreneurs in the city. But that record is scanty compared to the overall economic indicator.
It is time to add some color in the palace of economic bounty. It is time to make room in the Money Inn and do away with the false legitimacy and empirical beliefs that all is well in the overall business climate in Detroit. We know all is not well. There are Black business owners who believe they are doomed to eternal failure because they can never get the capital needed to grow.
While the holders of power in business and government need to make real the promises of opportunity for all, it is equally important for the Black business community to articulate a collaborative vision instead of working against each other to the point of self-destruction. I need not narrate the painful tales some business owners have shared with me about the lack of a common vision to leverage economic opportunities in the city.
To gain currency and equity in the marketplace, established Black business owners who know what it takes to sign a payroll check need to put in place a centralized channel of communication and advocacy to facilitate proper discussions on ways to access capital from the Money Inn. Working against each other instead of coming together on the bigger picture of economic empowerment only hurts the very idea of empowerment.
In 2015, we need a new direction. We need individuals with clear-cut vision.Check all egos at the door. Black entrepreneurs can’t just sit down and complain about what they don’t have. Because there is strength in numbers, they should articulate a vision and a realistic plan to help address the disparity and remove the guilt that some have in this town about the sorry state of Black participation in the rivers of opportunity currently flowing in Detroit.
When James Robinson, a 22-year veteran of the Detroit Police Department and the owner of the Robinson Mobile gas station on Woodward and Forest walked into my office Monday afternoon to let me know that he couldn’t find an African American buyer after his 10-year contract with Exxon Mobile expired Dec. 22, I wasn’t surprised.
With all the town halls and forums on economic empowerment and still no buyer? I wasn’t in a state of shock. Because I asked some Black business leaders a while ago why they aren’t coming together to purchase properties downtown and received no answer.
What was surprising to me was that Robinson said he reached out to some prominent African American leaders with a network to the Black business community about purchasing the station. He got no credible interest. Some of his emails were not even returned. He decided to turn to an economically organized group:, the Arab American community, where as he put it, “I got an offer that I couldn’t refuse.”
“I was very disappointed but I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. My first attempt was to get an African American business owner to buy the station, but I made two or three attempts and got no response,” Robinson said. “We have to establish the fact that the dollars in our pocket scan control our destiny as opposed to controlling others. It really boils down to that. If we don’t recognize that we will continue to make that mistake over and over again.”
Like Winston Churchill, I am an eternal optimist because the former British wartime prime minister once contended there is always opportunity in the midst of calamity. Thus all is not lost in Detroit. What we need now is structural empowerment that comes from the economic power base of the city with a commitment to diversify the market share by putting more businesses of color on the map.
A commitment with the stroke of a pen from business leaders driving various forms of innovation in Detroit will make a difference.
In view of this I’d like to see a strategic initiative led by the corporate leadership to tackle the imbalance of access to opportunity for Black businesses. I believe that there are business leaders in this town who are genuinely interested and want to see something done about this.
It is time for decision makers to take the front row seat on the issue with the unlimited ability to do right and to renounce bureaucracy. There is an opportunity waiting to be discovered by responding to the challenge of creating a strategic group willing to address diversity in business opportunities in Detroit. This is something that in principle business leaders are equal to the task.
In January, we will remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his message of equality during his birthday celebration. But King said something that should motivate us to move with a sense of urgency.
“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right? There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right,” King said.
What does your conscience tell you about the economic landscape in Detroit pertaining to Midtown and downtown?

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