ONLY IN THE WORLD-HERALD
Four years ago, Patricia Barron was a woman with a plan.
After 40 years of work that included a stint in the military, three decades at a phone company and a five-year tenure in sales, she figured it was time to focus on the dream she'd had since she was a little girl growing up in north Omaha: opening a restaurant.
She saved her money and took out a loan, found a good location in the former cafeteria of the Nebraska School for the Deaf and opened Big Mama's Kitchen. She hoped there was a big enough demand for her old-fashioned cooking — oven-fried chicken, cornbread, sweet potato cheesecake — to make it work.
The risk paid off.
Today, Barron has a dozen employees, a growing customer base across Omaha and plans to expand the Big Mama's brand. Her sweet potato pie ice cream is now sold in one Omaha Hy-Vee, and she's looking into packaging her popular “Afro” burgers for retail sale.
Her story is one local economic development leaders say they'd like to see replicated by other black business owners.
They say it's a group that's making progress — but still facing some significant challenges when it comes to starting the kind of businesses that can grow and spark more entrepreneurship in the community.
Data released this year by the U.S. Census Bureau show some good news when it comes to the growth of black-owned businesses in the Omaha-Council Bluffs area. Between 1997 and 2007, the overall number of firms increased by more than 66 percent, from 1,344 to 2,237 businesses — significantly more than the 35 percent increase in all businesses in the area in the same period. Receipts for businesses owned by blacks were up by 47 percent, to $145 million.
But there was also bad news. Compared with the national growth rate for black-owned businesses — a 133 percent increase in the same 10-year period — Omaha lagged behind.
Although the number of black-owned firms increased at a higher rate than overall firms in Omaha, the rate of growth in receipts was also lower: 47 percent compared with 65 percent overall. And over the decade, the number of black-owned firms with employees dropped by nearly 17 percent, from 206 to 172.
Dell Gines, who has been involved with several minority business efforts and works as the community affairs adviser for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City's Omaha branch, said that drop is particularly significant.
“To me, that's huge, that's devastating,” he said.
Gines said firms with employees have a bigger impact on the overall local economy because those business are putting money in the pockets of workers, who then go out and spend it — and eventually may be able to start businesses of their own.
“We're not developing entrepreneurs in the capacity to scale up, to actually have a true large impact in our community,” he said.
It's a problem Omaha shares with many other cities.
In a press conference announcing the census data, National Urban League President Marc Morial said 87 percent of all black-owned firms in the U.S. earn less than $50,000 per year in receipts. So while the number of businesses is growing, many are not developing fast enough.
“The painstakingly sobering news is that average black-owned businesses are still much smaller than non-minority-owned businesses here in the United States,” he said.
But each community has its own struggles and success stories.
Several business and community leaders who have studied black entrepreneurship in Omaha, including Gines, said the gap here is directly related to poverty and education rates among the city's black residents.
Dick Davis, CEO of Davis Cos., pointed to a 2009 report from the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, which linked high poverty rates — one out of every three black families in Omaha was living below the poverty line, versus one in 10 white families — to a rise in unemployment that began with the closure of the stockyards in the 1960s. Opportunities dried up as more and more businesses in black neighborhoods closed their doors.
“The Pew report basically says, of those generations who lived here in the '60s and remain, those remaining generations are worse off than they were in the '60s,” he said.
Barron, a lifelong resident of north Omaha, said she knows the story well. She remembers a time when her neighbors didn't have to travel to another part of the city to buy groceries or clothes or catch a bus to a job across town.
Running a business, she said, has made her more aware than ever of the challenges facing many black Omahans.
“We need industry, we need jobs,” she said. “We need a place where we can spend our money in our community.”
Barron and other black business owners, including Judy Pearl-Lee, president of Frontier Bag Co., said that's part of the reason they never thought about opening their businesses in a different part of the city.
Pearl-Lee has run Frontier Bag, which produces bags for industrial and agricultural use, along with custom-designed bags for companies and organizations, since the late 1980s. Her parents started the company in north Omaha in 1946.
Today, she has 13 employees. She said she's always looking for ways to grow, in terms of the products she makes and the clients she works with, but has no plans to move.
“Roots are very important to me. ... I think this community helped make us what we are,” she said.
Gines said Pearl-Lee is a good example of a business owner who is particularly valuable to Omaha — and to Omaha's black community. Her success and ties to her employees and her community make her unlikely to go elsewhere in search of something better, he said.
“For her to pick up and leave, and take that whole business somewhere else, she'd have to find employees, find space,” he said. “It would have to take an opportunity so tremendously greater than what she has here.”
In Omaha, Davis and Gines said, the problem is that there aren't enough Judy Pearl-Lees to make up a thriving, black business class.
That, they said, leads to a “brain drain” of the young black residents most likely to find financial stability and success as adults. Children and teens don't see opportunities in their community, so they figure it's not worth it to go to college. Those who do go on for higher education don't see Omaha as a place where they're likely to fit in.
“If you have a black middle class that doesn't like the city they're living in, they can go to another city and take their economic earning ability to another city,” Gines said.
Now, some Omaha leaders interested in fixing that problem are looking at it from a new angle.
In the past, they said, much of the momentum — in terms of both financial and educational efforts from a variety of organizations interested in minority-run businesses — has been directed toward small-business startups that don't necessarily have the tools to succeed.
Sometimes that means a first-time entrepreneur who knows how to do a job, whether it's running a day care or repairing cars, but doesn't know how to manage money or handle employees. Or it might be someone who sees the business only as something to supplement another income with a few thousand dollars per year — not as something that could become a profitable enterprise with five, 10 or 100 employees.
Gines said encouraging small startups is important, but providing more of a boost to businesses that already have a track record can have a more lasting impact.
He and Davis are among a group spearheading an effort to figure out where more business services are needed and to track the progress of entrepreneurs to get them the right resources. They've also been reaching out to other black business owners, bankers, organization leaders and others to figure out what resources are available to help.
“The only way to get an indigenous population out of poverty is through entrepreneurship,” Davis said. “That's really the key on this. What I'm saying is that the African-American community has not had any semblance of a business plan. We've been working for the last several years to basically address that.”
Ed Cochran, executive director of the Greater Omaha Chamber's North Omaha Development Project, said he's been encouraged by efforts that have helped bring more businesses to north Omaha.
“What I have seen is a number of businesses that are expanding, and we've seen a number of businesses coming to north Omaha in particular,” he said. “That's a good trend as it relates to building new jobs in the environment.”
Cochran said it's important that more businesses create jobs for people living in north Omaha if the trend is going to continue.
For her part, Barron said she's pleased with the success of her restaurant, but humbled with a sense of responsibility she didn't expect to feel.
When she was dreaming up the idea of Big Mama's, she said it was simple: She wanted to cook.
Now, she sees it as a chance to create something bigger.
When it was time to design the Big Mama's logo, she initially balked at having her picture front and center. But when someone pointed out that seeing her face linked with a successful business could inspire others, she changed her mind.
She thinks her business is a place where customers and workers from the neighborhood can find inspiration. She's hired people with criminal backgrounds because, she said, everyone deserves another chance.
More than three years after it opened, she said, Big Mama's is more than her initial dream of a comfortable place where people could “sit a spell” and enjoy good food and good company.
“It's a way of giving hope to the community and to the young people.”
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