With Prosper2016, African American Chamber focuses on breaking down barriers to growth

Black-owned businesses face sobering statistics

CINCINNATI -- If everything goes as planned for Rodney Hardin, he and a business partner will be opening OTR Live, a new concert venue, by the end of this year at 1133 Sycamore St. in Over-The-Rhine.

Although Hardin seems confident with his business plan, he’s also aware that it could prove to be a challenge.

Like some 125 other men and women who attended a kickoff event Thursday night for an African American Chamber of Commerce initiative called Prosper2016, Hardin heard some sobering statistics about black-owned businesses in Greater Cincinnati and across the country.

“I was surprised to hear that there are 1.9 million black-owned businesses in the country but 1.8 million of them have just one employee. Some of these people may be replacing corporate jobs by just going to work for themselves,” said Hardin, who has a corporate job as a regional sales director for the Kroger Co. and will have an ownership stake in OTR Live.

In the past, that Sycamore Street address hasn’t been kind to entrepreneurs who thought the location on the fringe of Downtown might prove to be a good place to make money.

The big building with a wide-open interior and a substantial open-air “garden” out front has operated under a long list of names, including Sycamore Gardens, the Red Cheetah, the Next Level, and, most recently, Club Glitter, which opened toward the end of April of this year and closed after a short time in business.

The national and regional outlooks for black-owned businesses were presented by Sean Rugless, the president and CEO of the Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky African American Chamber, which he described as the largest such organization in Ohio.

Rugless urged people in the room -- many of whom work in businesses owned by African Americans -- to support one another and spend at least some of their money at black-owned businesses.

Sean Rugless, chamber president and CEO, presented national and regional outlooks for black owned businesses. Photo by Greg Paeth

“Even as racial barriers have been toppled and the nation has grown wealthier and better educated, the economic disparities separating blacks and whites remain as wide as they were when marchers assembled on the Mall (in Washington) in 1963,” Rugless said, quoting a Washington Post assessment published in 2013.

In Greater Cincinnati, more than 18 percent of all of all businesses are owned by African Americans, and they have annual receipts of about $665 million, Rugless said. But those positive indicators were offset by unemployment rates that are generally double the rate for whites and an incarceration rate that’s six times higher than the rate at which white people go to jail, he said.

IN DEPTH: Black Cincinnatians face stark disparities

Rugless, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and Cincinnati City Councilman Charlie Winburn all devoted a considerable amount of time to talk about the concept of inclusion, especially in the awarding of city contracts.

Cranley said the city spends about $200 million a year through contracts, and that African Americans, who make up 47 percent of the city’s population, were getting about 2 percent of the contracts when he took office. He said that figure now stands at 8 percent and that he hopes to double that to 16 percent next year.

MORE: City makes sweeping changes to contracting program

Winburn recalled his successful fight to get $375,000 in funding to support the African American Chamber after other council members tried to trim the appropriation to $50,000. He credited Cranley with helping him convince other council members to restore the $375,000 to the budget.

Former Ohio Sen. Eric Kearney drove home the point that African American voters aren’t using all of the influence that they could wield at the polls. He also said that the chamber has the potential to shape policy that could prove beneficial to black business owners.

Kearney also recalled the early days of the African American Chamber, when the initial meetings were held in borrowed and cramped spaces in Mount Auburn. He said those venues, including a church basement, were a sharp contrast to Thursday’s meeting, which was held in an upscale event space at Great American Ball Park.

Rugless also had good things to say about MORTAR, an Over-The-Rhine business accelerator that will be working with the chamber in an effort to nurture entrepreneurs. The firm is headed by Allen Woods, who spoke briefly Thursday, as well as Derrick Braziel and William Thomas II.

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