Building An Economic Infrastructure

By Barney Blakeney

For the past little while I’ve been thinking about how getting stuff done takes time and effort. What’s the saying, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’?

So as I thought about the $17 million that blanketed Charleston along with the August 21 solar eclipse, I better understood why Black owned businesses saw almost none of that money.

A lot of money came to town and was spent during the long weekend of the eclipse. According to a report compiled by Office of Tourism Analysis at the College of Charleston, some 56,000 people spent about $17 million for food, shelter and other stuff.

The report was broken down in a couple different ways to track how much was spent, where and by whom.

But trying to get definitive numbers about the number of Black owned businesses that exist locally and how much money is spent with them is like pulling teeth.

The last statistics I got a few years ago was that less than eight percent of businesses in the Charleston region are Black owned.

I asked Charleston Minority Business Office Director Theron Snype about solar eclipse spending with Black owned businesses. He said the bottom-line is only a skeletal Black business infrastructure exists.

Without any hard data, Snype said it’s difficult to gauge how Black businesses fared during the solar event.

Local bed and breakfasts enjoyed about 90 percent occupancy, he estimated, but few of those are operated by Black homeowners. Black owned restaurants represent a significant number of local Black businesses.

Snype said he’s unsure whether many of them, which are obscured off the beaten paths to most tourism destinations, received much of the food and beverage spending that came with the eclipse. He noted while a lot of Blacks are employed in the food and beverage industry, few are business owners.

Black economic development advocate Kwadjo Campbell and his company JC & Associates September 30 will conduct the 9th annual African American Tourism Conference at the College of Charleston’s Beatty Center.

The conference workshops are focused on showing how Black owned businesses can to tap into one of the most visible and accessible engine of the local economy: The Tourism Industry, Campbell says. The visitor economy boasts a $16 Billion dollar economic impact on the state, with $6 Billion dollars coming from Charleston. But due to a lack of investment, the positive effects of its impact have not reached into the Black community beyond menial labor, and a few administrative positions, he said.

I was at a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary film “13th” September 17 and one of the panelists during the discussion of the film said sometimes documentation only confirms stuff most people already know because they live it daily.

For years I’ve been writing about disparities in business ownership as it relates to Black people locally. Studies and statistics have their places, but I don’t need no scientific analysis to tell me fat meat is greasy. In fact, I’m learning that a lot of people depend on studies and statistics to delay acting on what they already know. But that’s another story.

The viewing of “13th” reminded me of a few things – first that Black folks’ existence in America always has been about economic infrastructure, and secondly that developing infrastructure is deliberate and takes time. Black folks will not see any significant benefit from the economic engines that drive this community until it develops infrastructure that facilitates deriving such benefits.

I just got an email from the folks developing the International African American Museum and AT&T has donated $250,000 toward the project.

A young white woman just knocked on my door asking me about buying AT&T internet. She was persistent, but I ran her off.

A lot of Black people are consumers of AT&T products. The company is donating our money to a museum presenting our history. But we all know the museum, despite being a very positive thing, will not put much money back into the Black community.

Just as we didn’t have the economic infrastructure in place to take advantage of the solar eclipse financial windfall, we won’t have the economic infrastructure in place to take advantage of economic windfall the museum will bring.

So what am I saying? Just as unscrupulous folks took the time to deliberately put in place infrastructure (dismantling Reconstruction and substituting it with Jim Crow and pseudo civil rights) to capitalize on Black folks’ labor, we must be deliberate about developing infrastructure that maximizes the benefits of our labor and businesses.

In that respect Campbell said, “The conference and the work we do between conferences is aimed at building this infrastructure.

On the private side, developing products and modernizing existing ones is key, also, developing marketing programs and partnerships with other businesses and regional and state tourism agencies.

On the public side our Black elected officials, Democrats, and compassionate Republicans need to push for funding that is allocated towards product development and marketing.

“Local governments give less than 2 percent of their accommodations funding to African American based ventures. This is out of over $20 Million received locally between local Charleston Area Visitor Bureau and the local governments of John Tecklenburg, and Vic Rawl. Neither Democrat-led government financially supported the conference this year. You know who did? Republican led North Charleston.

“Out of the $17 Billion generated by tourism, the share for Black businesses is less than .00002 percent – we get less than $3.4 Million a year in a community made up of over 350,000 Blacks in the region.

Shame. Shame. Shame. But instead of just complaining, we do the conference in an effort to change the conversation and flow of dollars.”

I think that’s a start at developing Black business infrastructure. If such efforts are persistent and consistent, maybe in 50 years our kids will see some benefits.

Too long, you say? It’s been 50 years since the Civil Rights Movement. How about that?

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