With a 20-year-old son who likes rap and a younger daughter who likes Justin Timberlake, Burrs says he’s used to accommodating different styles and influences. He is the product of a Philly upbringing, and what brought him to Richmond was a job working with the United Negro College Fund. So when Burrs, who’s been with the city for three years, says, “This is not your father’s MBE program,” it’s easy to conceive that he means something cutting-edge.
If Burrs gets his way the city’s office of Minority Business Enterprise — the only one in the state — soon will be known as one of the most innovative MBE programs in the country. It’s a tall order that his office is prepared to fill, Burrs says, if City Council passes an ordinance that would expand the MBE office’s functions and services to a greater number of aspiring business owners. (The ordinance was slated for the June 23 Council session.)
The ordinance, drafted by Burrs’ office, calls for changes within the MBE program that are both subtle and dramatic. One of the changes creates a designation called “emerging small business.” This category would include women and potential small-business owners in general — entrepreneurs who may be black, Hispanic, Asian, Native-American or even white, as long as they are considered to be “underutilized” or “underdeveloped” in terms of money and resources.
The idea is to expand the MBE’s services, encourage access and competition for city contracts and ultimately become more inclusive, Burrs says. “It’s a subtle shift in philosophy from remedial to developmental programming, and that’s the importance of the ordinance going forward.”
But it could quickly turn controversial, Burrs admits. Why? Blacks represent 58 percent of Richmond’s metropolitan population and are the owners of nearly 6,500 area businesses. Already, some black business owners complain that the city’s procurement process falls short. The MBE’s new plan, they say, may shortchange them further because it extends incentives and resources to a bigger pool of competitors.
Others are supportive of the changes.
Harold Parker, president and owner of Old Dominion Electrical Supply is one. Parker’s company doesn’t have any city contracts but it relies on its MBE program for referrals. And Parker praises the work Burrs has done, calling it “hands-on” and innovative.
Parker, who is black, has been in business since 1983. In that time he’s experienced what many minority business owners have: the anxiety of longing to compete in a fair market, but the inevitability of being overlooked or ignored.
“What’s happened in the past is, they’ve thrown us a bone,” Parker says of the city’s efforts to help out minority businesses. “This new initiative could help level the playing field more, and that’s really hard in the good-old-boy world.”
Parker concedes the ordinance could provoke “backlash” from the African-American community because traditionally, it has been the “group suffering the most and needing the most help.” It also has been the group that has rallied most for support and lobbied everyone from City Hall to state legislators for help. “People are talking about affirmative action like crazy right now,” he points out. “Why can’t we talk about this outside the glass? Even a crumb of the pie now will help my business.”
Coincidentally, it was Croson v. the City of Richmond, a landmark case heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 that determined how MBEs should function. The case specified that if a government entity has race-conscious programs they would have to be narrowly tailored, and there would have to be a compelling interest for the program. In the case of Croson v. the City of Richmond, that compelling interest was discrimination against minority contractors.
Since then, every MBE program in the country has had to comply with Croson or face being sued or dismantled.
Consequently, the role of MBEs has been to conduct disparity studies to detect whether state and local MBEs have 30 percent of its government contracts available for minority businesses. (Far fewer are actually awarded.)
But now, Burrs says the economic and political climate has changed. “Disparity studies aren’t the protection they once were for MBE programs” to ensure either their accountability or their success, he says. “We want to avoid them and have a program that’s viable and more comprehensive, one that goes beyond city contracts to the private sector, especially in developments, where the city has some interest” and has provided incentives. Take, for example, Brown’s Island, Stony Point Fashion Center, the Broad Street Community Development Authority, the Virginia Performing Arts Complex, even Main Street Station and the new courthouse, two federal projects.
According to data from the most recent 2000 U.S. Census, the metro Richmond area has 6,468 black businesses, 2,456 businesses owned by Asians or Pacific Islanders, 1,140 businesses owned by Hispanics and 544 by Native Americans. Additionally, there has been and will continue to be a dramatic shift in demographics in Virginia, whose multicultural population already is more than one third. And census and U.S. Department of Commerce information predicts this growth will be rapid, have tremendous economic effects, and be seen and felt first at the local level.
“It’s not rocket science to know you’ve got to do something on the social side — that’s not currently part of our program — to improve the economic business side and make it more attractive to new ethnic communities,” Burrs says.
A second prong of the ordinance calls for creating a more viable community of businesses and service providers in areas that have been noticeably free from minority representation, such as architects and engineers.
The MBE program has outlined other new initiatives too. It will create a real-estate development program for minorities by active recruitment, providing a curriculum and mentoring relationships with already successful larger developers, and ultimately providing an infrastructure for minority businesses in which they can competitively bid — and win — all kinds of city contracts, big and small. Additionally, the MBE program plans to incubate and grow partnerships with the private sector and with research institutions like Virginia Union University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Recently the MBE partnered with VUU to create the Multicultural Business Solutions Center, an entrepreneurial resource to provide services that reflect the specific experiences and barriers faced by minority business owners.
With more than $1 billion invested in the development of downtown Richmond, Burrs says such issues are especially timely and important. He thinks 10, 15, or 20 percent of that billion could easily be $600 million in awarded contracts to minority businesses. “Everybody understands the critical question of inclusion and of what the future of the city will look like. Our effort is to make the whole pie bigger.” S
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