Harlem Business Owners Protest Funds Distribution

At 54 W. 125th St., a bright, multi-colored neon sign advertising "organic juice" and "hot soup" stands out from the other small, weathered store signs on the block. The line of customers that reaches all the way to the back of the Uptown Juice Bar is evidence to the store's recent successes. The managers of the 10-year-old local business boast of new kitchen equipment, an expanded seating area, and more advertising since last summer.

But just several blocks away, Harlem Office Supply is fighting to stay alive in an increasingly competitive market. The owner, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, was recently forced to move her business to a new location on 125th Street because of a $3,000 increase in her rent. She fears that a large competitor like Staples may move into the neighborhood and "certainly crush Harlem Office Supply to death."

The owners of Uptown Juice Bar and Harlem Office Supply attribute their recent business experiences to a common source--the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone. UMEZ is a federal program instituted by the Clinton administration in 1994 that designates $300 million of federal, state, and city money for the economic development of Harlem.

A specific division of UMEZ, called the Business Resource and Investment Service Center, was created to focus on the development of small, locally-owned businesses in Harlem. Ideally, BRISC is designed to help small business that show stable finances and potential for future growth. But stories like those of the Uptown Juice Bar and Harlem Office Supply suggest that the resources of BRISC are being unevenly--and some argue unfairly--distributed. The opinions of Harlem business owners on the usefulness of UMEZ are highly polarized.

For Davie Simmons, the owner of Uptown Juice Bar, BRISC has been a blessing. Last June, his business was approved for a $90,000 loan, which contributed to $200,000 worth of renovations, extensions, and new equipment for the small restaurant.

"UMEZ has been wonderful. ... They advertise for us in any publications that they have," Simmons said. "And they've been very accommodating with us on paying back the loan."

According to Walter J. Edwards, chairman of the Harlem Business Alliance, these kinds of stories show how the function of BRISC was originally envisioned.

"BRISC gives small businesses the marketing, financial, and technological assistance that really brings them up to snuff," Edwards said. Still, he admitted that he has "heard more bad things from small businesses about UMEZ [than good things]."

For Hughes, owner of Harlem Office Supply, the negative effects of UMEZ far outweigh the positives for the Harlem community. During the development stages of UMEZ, she was a member of the research team that led to the development of BRISC. She said the original vision for BRISC has been muted by the gentrification resulting from other programs in UMEZ. These programs have brought large businesses like Old Navy and Disney into Harlem to create jobs but have ultimately created more competition for locally-owned businesses.

Hughes' experience with UMEZ led her to right a book entitled Wake Up and Smell the Dollars! Whose Inner City is This Anyway? In the book, she explains that the economic philosophy of UMEZ is flawed:

"Some are convinced that empowering large corporations to provide low paying jobs for our residents will bring economic empowerment to the community. ... [But] without African-American ownership, there is ultimately no local empowerment."

Hughes said she knows several small businesses that were forced out of business due to new competition from national corporations. Copeland's Country Kitchen, once a popular restaurant on 145th Street, was hit with an increase in rent by their new McDonald's landlord, according to Hughes.

"Mr. Copeland had just done some renovations and had trained all of his employees in culinary arts," Hughes said. "But he didn't get a dime from the Empowerment Zone."

The University's Director of Community Affairs Larry Dais, who assisted in writing the proposal for UMEZ, said the emphasis of the federal program is neither on large or small businesses but is instead focused on creating jobs and stimulating the economy through any means.

"BRISC is there to help the existing businesses in Harlem so they won't be pushed out by incoming businesses," Dais said. "It helps those small businesses that are individually owned and show potential for successful growth."

Still, Hughes believes that BRISC's resources are being unevenly distributed among small businesses in Harlem, as she has seen businesses as old as 35 years fold without help from BRISC. In 1996, her own business was denied a loan from BRISC, whose guidelines she assisted in creating, presumably for owing taxes and rent.

"I was denied help because I needed it," Hughes said. "We would have been better served if the $300 million dollars had never been given, because it is being used to put black businesses out of business."

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