Photo: Paul Buckowski, Albany Times Union
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ALBANY – Three years ago, Allyson Payne started selling second-hand clothes from her front yard. When the weather was bad, she’d move business inside her basement, where her husband built her shelves and racks.
This year, she saw a for-rent sign in the marketplace-style Coliseum building on South Pearl Street and moved in her business — named Acacia’s Basement after its origin — on Oct. 1.
It’s going well, she said two months later, but the next leap will be opening her own place.
“I would love to have my own building,” Payne said. “It’s a stepping stone.”
She has her eye on a vacant building — but it will take significant grants or funding to fix it up.
Nearly one in three residents of Albany is black, but minority entrepreneurs like Payne have to overcome unique challenges to sustain financial success. Now two black chambers of commerce —one running for more than a decade, the other born of a split between the two a few months ago —are rising up to boost minority-run businesses.
In March, the Capital District Black Chamber of Commerce, started 11 years ago, re-ignited with a kick-off event and a renewed vision to support black-owned enterprises. By August, three individuals involved in the restart had formed the Upstate New York Black Chamber of Commerce.
What led to the split is disputed by the participants. The leadership of the old chamber calls the new a fraud because of debt owed by the founder for previous business dealings. The founders of the new chamber criticize the old for a lack of transparency.
But both sides agree that minority entrepreneurs face unique challenges like lack of capital, training and role models. Now, will the existence of two chambers hurt or help visionaries overcome those challenges?
There are 54 minority-owned businesses in the city registered in the state’s directory of Women and Minority Business Enterprises. Businesses have to be running at least a year before registration — although many new enterprises don’t make it that far — and the owner’s race isn’t tracked in the database, leaving no way to tell how many are black-owned.
Albany native Tatiana Cunningham, who plans to open her own events decorating business in 2019, started the inaugural Capital New York Black Expo this year. The November event attracted more than 82 vendors, but only a handful have storefronts in Albany and she said they struggle to gain visibility.
Jahkeen Hoke, chief operating officer of the recently formed Upstate New York Black Chamber of Commerce, said the first step to business development is retaining talent in economically depressed neighborhoods like Albany’s South End, where he grew up and returned after college.
“There are no visuals of growth specifically for the minority community,” said Hoke, who’s also the co-founder of nonprofit organization 4th Family and recently was named director of community group AVillage Inc. “There is no one who looks like you.”
Even when entrepreneurs exist, it’s hard to get capital to boost business.
Ron Quartimon, former chair of the board for the Capital District Chamber who has been advising the new chamber, said small minority-owned businesses can lack experience or infrastructure. He added that black entrepreneurs face roadblocks in obtaining business loans because of institutional discrimination.
That’s where a black chamber of commerce comes in.
Why two black chambers?
The Capital District Black Chamber of Commerce, now headed by Albany Common Council President Corey Ellis, was started in 2007 to economically empower minority communities through entrepreneurship in the region.
“With the economic situation here in the Capital District, the way we find people to unlock the chains of poverty is through some type of entrepreneurial enterprise,” said Clifton Dixon, who works for the Capital District Chamber. “Sometimes they have only one shot. If they make the wrong move from an entrepreneurial venture, it could double their problems and we try to help them from the start do it the right way.”
Ellis, who is President/CEO and Chair of the Board, declined to comment for this article. He deferred to Dixon, who works both as Ellis’ chief of staff for the council and as navigator for a federal healthcare program and special assistant to Ellis as head of the chamber.
Since 2013, the Capital District Chamber has received money through a federal healthcare program to register uninsured New Yorkers for coverage. The organization, a registered non-profit affiliated under the National Black Chamber of Commerce, reported it served 435 individuals and organizations with programs this year, an increase from more than 320 last year. It did not provide the number of current members.
The recently formed Upstate New York Chamber has an almost identical vision to empower black-owned businesses, although they want to spread to seven upstate cities plus Albany. They aim to be a source for recruiters, support for entrepreneurs and government advocate for minorities through training, networking events and educational programs.
The new chamber, affiliated with the U.S. Black Chambers, has a verbal commitment from around 25 members but is not accepting dues until 2019.
The organization was founded by President/CEO Tony Gaddy, vice-president of the Schenectady County Library Board of Trustees, in August. For more than a year, he’s held a biweekly networking event with black entrepreneurs.
At the start of 2018 he joined the revamp of the Capital District Chamber. His position is unclear: in the spring, he was paid $525, calculated as 25 percent commission of nine memberships he recruited, based off an unsigned contract for a director of operations role.
Communication between the leadership of the old and new chambers broke down early on. After a heated meeting in April and an unanswered email in June that questioned who was on the Board as well as contracts, compensation and offices for the workforce, Gaddy began talking with Hoke about forming a new chamber.
“My concerns were just transparency and understanding how things were operating so that we could best deliver the programs and services that we can provide,” Hoke said.
The new chamber was incorporated with the New York Department of State on Aug. 7. Dixon discredits Gaddy and his chamber because Gaddy began using the new name with community partners in early August, prompting the Capital District Chamber to send Gaddy a cease and desist letter for unlawful representation of the organization, although he was not a salaried employee. The address on the letter is a Schenectady residence where Gaddy didn’t live at the time and he claims he didn’t receive it.
Dixon also discredits the new chamber because Gaddy owes thousands of dollars from his time as the publisher of Our Town Colonie magazine in summer 2016. In November a Schenectady City Court judge ordered Gaddy to repay Craig Shufelt, owner of graphic design agency Shufelt Group, $5,000 — less than the $6,100 he’s owed him for the past two years for magazine design work.
“If someone has lied and misdirected your funds, it could be devastating,” Dixon said. “That’s why we’re so upset. You’re dealing with people’s lives and livelihoods.”
Gaddy said his debt was a personal business matter that has nothing to do with the new chamber.
“If some of the lessons I’ve learned as a business owner, if they can help people going forward, I can be prepared to treat everything I’ve done as a learning experience,” Gaddy said.
Helping or hurting?
Gaddy and Hoke said they want to move past conflict to pursue their work. They said they would “never refuse to collaborate” with the Capital District Chamber if their mission and values were in line. Dixon said the new chamber couldn’t be compared to the existing one and the area isn’t big enough for both.
Others said they saw the existence of two chambers as a plus for the community.
Ray Leach is the CEO of JumpStart, a non-profit venture development organization funded by KeyBank, which gave grants to three community organizations in Albany and partnered with the Capital District Chamber for a kickoff event on Aug. 21. Leach said he supported both chambers but doesn’t fund either directly.
“We’re here to help black and diverse entrepreneurs and small businesses any way we can,” Leach said. “We view more resources for black entrepreneurs as a positive. Entrepreneurs in the community can decide which organization is providing the right services.”
Quartimon, former chair of the board for the Capital District Chamber who has been advising the Upstate New York Chamber, said he didn’t see the two as competitive. He instead wanted to focus on the larger mission of building up black business.
“The issue is large enough, especially in the Capital District, you can certainly benefit from having multiple organizations,” Quartimon said. “I think that in the future, there are probably plenty of opportunities for the two organizations to work together. I think if we look at the big picture and we put the need of the black business communities before anything else, there is plenty of opportunity for growth.”