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Conditions for minority-owned businesses in Jefferson City improving

Conditions for minority-owned businesses in Jefferson City improving

But others say scars of racial injustice still loom

February 11th, 2018 by Philip Joens in Local News

Philllippia Rome, owner of The Blue Skillet, with her vegetable lasagna. She is one of several black members of the community to say it can be hard for people of color to work in Jefferson City's existing business climate.

Photo by Mark Wilson /News Tribune.

Editor's note: The Jefferson City community has been facing the complicated topics of diversity and racism for several months, and the News Tribune has been reporting on those discussions as they happen. For a look at all of the voices who have contributed to this discussion, view additional coverage at newstribune.com/diversity.

Phillippia Rome's kitchen serves as her canvas.

Each day, the owner of The Blue Skillet restaurant serves tasty soul food like chicken and waffles, fried fish and pork chops. Hearty Southern sides like candied yams, macaroni and cheese, and mashed potatoes round out the menu.

Rome taught herself to cook long before moving to Mid-Missouri to open the restaurant. Food serves as her art form, and she feels blessed to share it with Jefferson City residents.

After opening The Blue Skillet in October 2015, Rome said, Jefferson City welcomed her with open arms. Still, she added, divisions exist in the community.

"The first time I've ever been called the N-word by a white person was here," Rome said.

Black business owners like Rome and city leaders said the city tries to embrace people of all races but sometimes falls short. Some members of the community said people of color in business need to become more involved in community organizations. Others said the scars of decades of racial injustice still loom over the city.

Rome moved to Jefferson City in 2015 at the prodding of her brother, former Lincoln University President Kevin Rome. Her restaurant displays mementos like a 100-year-old stove in the kitchen and trash cans from a Quiznos location in Rome's former home of Columbus, Georgia.

Kevin Rome insisted on financing the operation, Phillippia Rome said, partially because she didn't have the credit to qualify for a bank loan.

Joy Wheatfall, director of Lincoln University's Small Business Development Center, said people of color sometimes struggle to find loans to start businesses in the Midwest. Demographics cause part of this, Wheatfall said, as white people make up the majority of many Midwestern cities and towns, including Jefferson City.

People of color, Wheatfall said, tend to seek out people who look like themselves. Still, she said, several Jefferson City banks do a great job of lending to entrepreneurs of color and educating them about the process of starting a business.

"We are gaining great support," Wheatfall said. "It's a good ecosystem. Everyone is stepping in and providing what they can."

Forming a plan

In September 2017, four white youths photographed themselves with a car showing racially insensitive language and imagery drawn into dirt on the back windshield.

Backlash came swiftly. Jefferson City Public Schools disciplined three of the teenagers who were local students and re-evaluated its own commitment to diversity.

After the incident, Faith Voices of Jefferson City held a series of meetings to discuss how local institutions can become more diverse.

The Rev. Cassandra Gould, who serves as executive director of Missouri Faith Voices, moved to Jefferson City eight years ago. As she settled in, it shocked her to see how few black-owned businesses the community had.

Since then, Gould said, a few new black-owned businesses have popped up.

Still, the incident started a conversation about how to create more economic opportunities for local people of color.

"We're in some community conversations about what it would look like to have more African-Americans engaged in business," Gould said. "It is part of our economic justice work to eliminate the barriers African-American business owners run into."

The largest minority

White residents make up a greater share of Jefferson City's population than the rest of Missouri and the country. In 2016, white residents made up 83.3 percent of Jefferson City's population, compared to 81.8 percent of Missourians and 70 percent of U.S. residents, according to data from the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce.

Black residents make up a greater share of Jefferson City's population than the rest of Missouri's population but a smaller share than the rest of the United States. In 2016, black residents made up 12 percent of the city's population, compared to 11.9 percent of Missouri's population and 13.3 percent of the U.S. population.

The ratios are similar for Hispanic, Asian, Native American and mixed-race residents.

Black business leaders around town guessed only a handful of black-owned businesses exist locally. Phillippia Rome pegged the number at 20. Several put it closer to 10.

Despite this, the 2012 U.S. Economic Census said Cole County had 369 black-owned businesses in 2012, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center. The same year, Missouri ranked No. 19 nationwide with 36,230 black-owned businesses, 1.4 percent of all businesses statewide.

A map provided by MERIC shows fewer than 200 black-owned businesses existed in Callaway County at the time, and Moniteau and Miller counties did not have enough black-owned businesses to tabulate in the study.

Data from the Missouri Office of Equal Opportunity show only 10 businesses in Jefferson City currently have a minority-owned business certification from the state of Missouri.

Minority- and women-owned business certification entitles businesses to greater opportunities to bid on state contracts, primarily helping companies that serve government clients. Applicants also must submit at least two years of tax returns and complete other paperwork.

Demolishing The Foot

Glover Brown remembers a time when black businesses flourished. Born in 1952, Brown's parents owned a barbecue restaurant in the heart of Jefferson City's one-time black business and residential district.

Named The Foot for its location at the bottom of Lafayette Street, the district stretched along Lafayette Street between East Dunklin Street and Miller Street.

Over the years, Brown has owned several local businesses including an outdoor advertising company.

"It has not," Brown responded when asked how Jefferson City's business community improved for minority groups since the 1960s. "The Hispanics, the Asians have come here and been able to flourish, but black-owned businesses still have a little trouble."

For about 100 years from the 1860s to the 1960s, black communities grew up around The Foot. Before the Civil War, through about 1880, more than 80 percent of the city's black population lived near downtown in today's Commercial Way. During segregation, black businesses flourished as they hosted sports and entertainment stars like Satchel Paige, Wilt Chamberlain and the Harlem Globetrotters.

A federal plan in the 1960s bulldozed the heart of the The Foot to make room for U.S. 50. An urban renewal plan created at the time could have offered low-interest loans to business owners to help them rebuild.

It never happened. A 1962 report dubbed the area blighted, and business owners including Brown's parents accepted below-market values for their properties. In the 1960s, Brown said, what happened in Jefferson City mirrored a nationwide effort to dismantle the black economy.

"There was a systemic way to eliminate the entire black community," Brown said. "All you've got to do is look at the footprint and see how they destroyed it."

Brown is intensely proud his family traces its roots in central Missouri back to the late 1700s and its roots in Jefferson City to the 1920s.

"We've always had a presence in Jefferson City," Brown said.

Like Phillippia Rome, Brown described occasional instances of racism he's experienced in recent years.

One particular underlying problem, he said, is the city's leaders don't recruit enough minority-owned business. In turn, minority business owners are skittish to move to the area, he added.

"They don't feel like there's a climate here for them to flourish," Brown said. "There's not a large enough minority community for them to get established and for the white community to begin to learn who they are."

Mayor Carrie Tergin said she can't speak for what has happened in the past; she can only try to make the city the best place it can be now and in the future.

"Perhaps we haven't realized that our welcoming door is not as open as it could be," Tergin said. "We can make a difference now and increase awareness."

As a result of community dialogue over recent months, Jefferson City revived its Human Relations Commission seven years after it went dormant. The new commission held its first meeting in late January and said it wants to hear from a variety of viewpoints so the city can become more inclusive.

A welcoming community

Some differences in opinion in the black business community could be generational. Some non-Jefferson City natives don't know as much about past injustices in The Foot.

Recently Andria Hendricks, 42, left her job as a business professor at Lincoln University to found her second company. ASTRADA Business Solutions provides business consulting and advising services. Previously, Hendricks started and ran a mortgage brokerage for about seven years. The Great Recession hampered business, though, and Hendricks moved to the job at Lincoln.

An East St. Louis native, she has found Jefferson City to be nothing but welcoming to all people during her 24 years in the city.

"I have not encountered any problems whatsoever," Hendricks said. "It's been business as usual for me."

As Missouri's capital, people from all over the world visit Jefferson City. Tergin thinks the city and its business climate welcome and accept all people.

Still, it bothered Tergin to hear people like Phillippia Rome experience acts of racism. The city's residents must not condone acts like these, she said.

"We want to make sure we're welcoming," Tergin said. "It really does start with us. There may be ways that we can do better."

Business owners in Jefferson City tend to be predominantly white, Hendricks acknowledged. Still, she said, a small but growing group of entrepreneurs makes up a diverse segment of the business community.

"When you think of entrepreneurs, you think of the mindset of the people," Hendricks said. "So in that regard, I don't think that's a problem."

Once she finishes the paperwork, Hendricks plans to use the tools she has by filing for minority- and women-owned business status.

Taking action

By and large, community members said if people want to see change in Jefferson City, they must take it upon themselves to volunteer for groups and leadership positions. Some lamented minority groups remain under-represented in leadership positions within local businesses and organizations.

Both white and black residents said, though, that businesses and organizations can make selections only from the pool of candidates who apply. If minorities don't seek executive jobs and leadership positions, white and black community members concede, it's hard to find people of color for those roles.

Of 29 members, the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce's board of directors contains one person of color. To be elected to the board, people must be chamber members and nominated to the board. A selection committee reviews nominations and tries to create a diverse mix by looking at factors such as race, sex, age and industry.

The president of Lincoln University also traditionally has been black and serves on the board. Since June, the university has not had a permanent president.

Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce President Randy Allen declined to discuss the issue of diversity within the chamber.

Twelve members make up the Downtown Association Board of Directors, but no minority members currently sit on the board. Downtown Association President Crystal Tellman said minority members have served in past years.

When evaluating candidates nominated for board positions, the Downtown Association considers factors including race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, and the business they own or work for downtown.

"That's understandable," Tellman said. "From the board standpoint, with diverse opinions and people, we are making decisions that impact everyone."

Board members volunteer their time. Tellman noted each board position requires a time commitment of eight to 20 hours per month, which narrows the field of candidates who apply.

Events held by the association, like the yearly Blue Tiger Fest for LU students, bring people of all backgrounds downtown.

Eastside Business Association President Greg Kemna said the group tries to involve LU as much as it can. Jerome Offord, Lincoln's dean of administration and student affairs, currently serves on the board and previously served as president.

Kemna acknowledged Offord is the only person of color on the board but said it can be challenging to find applicants at all.

"It's usually just one of those positions where you're happy to have volunteers," Kemna said.

Other local business groups have similar leadership makeups.

Hendricks is not on the chamber's board but said the chamber welcomed her with open arms.

If groups of people want to be represented better and to make the community better, Hendricks said, the onus lies with them to get involved with organizations like the chamber and other business associations.

"The people of color have to become engaged," Hendricks said, "whether that's volunteering, whether that's just participating in the different forums they have or even just voicing your concerns to say, 'We want your board to represent the community.'"

Phillippia Rome acknowledged divisions still exist in Jefferson City, but about 80 percent of her customers are white. Like Hendricks, Rome said some of the responsibility to create institutions that better resemble the makeup of the community lies with individuals.

She noted some businesses still exist where black customers don't go because white residents primarily make up their clientele. Simply crossing this barrier makes the community better, Rome said.

"Go to places that make you feel uncomfortable," she said. "Talk to the people, and you'll notice you have more in common than you think."

Hendricks said entrepreneurs need the social capital to state clearly what they want to do.

"If you state what it is you're wanting to do, I think people will get behind you and want to support you," Hendricks said.

Firm plans

About a half-mile from Lincoln University, The Blue Skillet sits tantalizingly close to campus. Phillippia Rome moved to Jefferson City to serve the university's students. With a tall hill between the restaurant and the school, walking the distance can be challenging.

Rome offers specials on burgers, fries and hot dogs for LU students, but frustratingly few come to her restaurant, she said.

The Jefferson City Planning and Zoning Commission approved a plan in July to improve the Historic Southside and Old Munichburg neighborhoods. The plan aims to use public-private partnerships to build parks, improve street conditions and expand housing choices for residents.

Capital Region Medical Center worked with the city and its residents to create the plan. Jefferson City Senior Planner Eric Barron said in September that the region's rich history and the diversity of its businesses, schools and residents position the neighborhood to flourish well into the future.

Among the proposals for the Southside, the plan aims to turn the intersection of Lafayette Street and Stadium Boulevard into a walkable and bikeable neighborhood by making it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to navigate. The plan also hopes to beautify Lafayette Street by planting native shrubs. To improve the area around LU, the plan suggests demolishing some single-family homes across from the campus' northeastern edge to build mixed-use buildings.

To Brown and Gould, parts of the neighborhood revival plan seem reminiscent of the failed urban renewal plan of the 1960s. Tergin stressed, though, many business groups, businesses and the city sought input from all residents.

"Overall, the goal is just to make the community better," Tergin said.

To ensure this plan does not fail, Tergin said, stakeholders need to continue to communicate with each other.

"That's what brings success to any plan," Tergin said. "That is how we prevent failed attempts."

Prior to the January meeting, the Human Rights Commission last met in June 2010. With its revival, Tergin said, the city took steps in the right direction. The commission hopes to bring in voices not only from organizations representing people of differing ethnicities but also LGBT and other groups.

Funding could be an issue. Because the city created the commission after the start of the fiscal year that began Nov. 1, the city did not budget money for its work. Jefferson City Council members can approach the Budget Committee later this year to ask for funding in future years. Until then, the commission hopes to rely on grants.

While business owners and others in Jefferson City acknowledged work remains to make the city perfect for everyone, Hendricks, who serves on the commission, remains upbeat about the prospects for her new business. She recently landed two contracts and can't wait to see what the future holds.

"I have been working very diligently," Hendricks said. "I see a niche."

Have a question about this article? Have something to add? Email reporter Philip Joens at pjoens@newstribune.com.