Article: Black business leaders speak out about racial disparity in Shreveport
Updated: Apr 9, 2019
At least one member of the Shreveport City Council believes the city has a history of racial discrimination that is limiting opportunities for black businesses in the area. But when offered a way to delve deeper into the topic, the council vetoed the idea.
In working sessions for the 2017 budget, city council members shot down a proposal for commissioning a disparity study— an analysis conducted by a research organization about whether a city provides equal opportunities to all of its citizens. Council members agreed that racial and socioeconomic disparities exist in Shreveport, but they disagreed about whether spending $400,000 to commission the disparity study would be the best use of taxpayer dollars.
Those who opposed commissioning the study added that the City of Shreveport is already taking steps to bridge the gap through the FairShare program, which was created to address overall economic disparity, and that minority businesses have access to several other professional resources within the community. But more than a dozen local black business owners told the Times a disparity study could help bring economic development opportunities to minority businesses.
Councilman Willie Bradford, who sponsored the study idea, said he plans to reintroduce the topic of the study before the year’s end.
“We have had black companies wanting to come to Shreveport, but they won’t come on a hope or a prayer,” Bradford said. “The disparity study would be an investment whose impact would be far reaching. It will show that Shreveport is serious about its citizens and moving forward.”
Disparity and economic development in Shreveport
Raymond Hill, the successful CEO of Thermo-Technics in Shreveport and a licensed contractor since 1983, said he’s a successful black businessman because he has the mindset and skills to succeed. But he added that he wouldn’t wish his fight-to-the-top on his worst enemy.
“There are enough challenges that pertain to being a business person in and of itself, and a whole other for being a business owner of a minority,” Hill said. “It’s systematic. It’s not just one issue. What has happened in the past has contributed to the problems of today.”
While the number of minority-owned businesses in the area has increased in recent years, the percentage of city and parish contracting work awarded to those businesses remains low, according to data from the Minority Supplier Institute, the U.S. Census Bureau and Louisiana Economic Development.
LED reported there were close to 9,800 African American-owned businesses in the Shreveport-Bossier area in 2012, a 108 percent increase from 2007, and that minority-owned businesses increased by 88 percent in the same time period. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that Shreveport had a total of 7,228 minority-owned firms in 2012, the year for which most recent data is available, and they accounted for 37 percent of all the city’s firms.
But only 1 percent of Caddo Parish’s contracting receipts went to African American businesses in that same year, according to Jeffrey Thomas, executive director of the Strategic Action Council and managing director of the Minority Supplier Institute.
“When you think about the percentage of minorities in the population, and the percentage of minorities getting receipts, there’s something wrong,” Thomas said.
Hill, who was present at a recent meeting of minority small business leaders in Shreveport, said inequalities in everything from education to workforce development for minorities contributed to the overall lack of minority contracting. Other minority business leaders at the meeting shared experiences of having difficulty accessing capital and performance bonds needed to bid for city contracts.
Shreveport businessman Tarodgany Lockett started his company, Operation Green Recycling, to help make the city a cleaner, more environmentally friendly place. Lockett told the group he’s struggling to keep his business open because he has to compete against a bigger, out-of-state company.
Joseph Nedson, a black business partner of Brothers Concrete & Hardscape in Shreveport, also said he struggled to compete with bigger, out-of-state companies and got “knocked out of business” soon after starting his contracting business.
“I started out with nothing. It’s a fight all the way to the top, and then you can’t get a loan or a bond,” Nedson said. “If we could get the disparity study done, it could change things around.”
Gary Harris, a white business owner who attended the meeting, agreed that the disparity study would most likely show underlying problems of unequal access.
“The system is not set up to help minorities. I’ve been here for 10 years, and I see how the big corporations work," he said. "If you really want to start to change the system and help blacks, then you need to help them with their bonding and insurance and then do the disparity study to see where they can get more help."
Other business leaders at the meeting said they experienced problems with communication about when bids were open, a trend commonly reported to Thomas of the Minority Supplier Institute
“The companies that are in contact with me said they don’t always know about the opportunities out there,” Thomas said. “If you don’t know about the opportunity, you can’t bid. It becomes a vicious cycle.”
As executive director of the Strategic Action Council, Thomas focuses on improving economic inclusivity. SAC was formed in 2004, after a disparity study sponsored by the United Way of North Louisiana concluded that minority and low-income residents experienced differences in educational experiences, workforce education, health care services, affordable housing and more.
“Cities that have done this in the past are showing how you can have a more prosperous community. We know this works,” Thomas said. “You can still accomplish this without a study, but it depends on how strong a city is in setting a goal and meeting it.”
City council members respond
During last year's budget working sessions to adopt the 2017 budget, council members agreed that racial and socioeconomic disparities exist in Shreveport but disagreed about whether spending $400,000 on a study would be the best use of taxpayer dollars.
Councilman Jerry Bowman cited other financial obligations of the city – in particular, the need to pay for road repairs, federally mandated improvements to the city’s sewer infrastructure and raises for employees on the lowest rungs of the city pay scale.
Bowman said the study could be a “useful tool” in starting conversations about whether equal opportunities exist for minorities but doubted whether those discussions would increase private sector contracting jobs or attract businesses to the area.
“In my experience, the lack of start-up capital and bonding are serious impediments to most minority and disadvantaged businesses,” Bowman wrote in an email. “I am not certain a disparity study alone will address economic development to communities with minority or disadvantaged businesses.”
Councilman Michael Corbin also expressed doubts about the benefits of a disparity study. He said the city’s current contracting practices are about capacity, not discrimination.
“With most city contracts the jobs are large and often require specific knowledge and equipment. Additionally, the city must require, in many cases, insurance and a performance bond to bid on a job,” Corbin wrote in an email. “Often times, a new or small business can meet neither qualification.”
Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch also said she doubted whether a disparity study would “move the needle much” due to politics.
“We have stacks of studies collecting dust, that if they had been followed, would have created or maintained flourishing African American communities, businesses and populations,” Lynch wrote in an email.
But, Lynch added, the study could be an “effective measure” to evaluate existing programs, such as the City of Shreveport’s FairShare program, which aims to bring economic opportunities to minority and disadvantaged companies.
“Neither the city, nor the parish, has done enough to ensure that current and future African American entrepreneurs are included in every contract that is let using public dollars,” Lynch wrote in an email.
While a disparity study would target racial disparities, Thomas said, the FairShare program was created to address overall economic disparity.
“The main thing about the FairShare program is that it is race neutral, so it deals with economic disparity and not necessarily racial disparity,” he said. “The Fair Share doesn’t look at race, but it’s not meant to.”
Resources available to minority contractors
Karen Barnes, coordinator of the FairShare Program, said Shreveport cannot legally award contracts on the basis of race because the program is set up to be “race neutral.”
Barnes added, however, that the program awarded 281 contracts totaling more than $18 million to minority businesses in 2016 – the largest number and dollar amount awarded to minority businesses in the past seven years.
“It is the policy of the City of Shreveport to ensure every opportunity is made available to include small disadvantaged business in its awarding of contracts and purchases,” she wrote in an email.
Barnes said the city also hosts summits, classes and workshops for its 231 current FairShare vendors – of which 185 are minority business enterprises – in topics such as the bid process, contract management and risk management.
The program also conducts outreach through presentations to civic and business organizations, the Shreveport and African American chambers of commerce, the Minority Supplier Institute and other agencies.
LED offers technical assistance in accounting, computer, legal and business planning and contracting to certified members, said LED Secretary Don Pierson. The agency also collaborates with minority business enterprises through partnerships with Grambling State University and the FairShare program and offers nontraditional access to capital through venture funds with TruFund and LiftFund.
Corbin said other opportunities are available for minority businesses to increase their acumen through programs with Jewella House, Community Development, the Southern University Business Incubator, the Entrepreneurial Accelerator Program and the Bio-Medical Research Foundation.
A note about the FairShare program: Vendors can find the Fair Share Program and requirements at www.shreveportla.gov. Additionally, vendors may contact the Fair Share Coordinator Karen Barnes at (318) 673-5060 or at 505 Travis Street, Suite 200, in Shreveport.
BY THE NUMBERS $18.4 million of work contracted to minority businesses by City of Shreveport (2016)
$400,000 estimated cost of disparity study
19, 683 total number of firms in Shreveport (2012)
9,780 total number of African American owned businesses in Shreveport-Bossier (2012)
7,228 total number of minority-owned firms in Shreveport (2012) 300+ number of vendors FairShare program works with
281 contracts awarded to minority businesses by City of Shreveport (2016)
231 current vendors registered with City of Shreveport FairShare program
185 minority business enterprises registered with City of Shreveport FairShare 45 percent of black families live in poverty
Sources: City of Shreveport FairShare Program data, United Way of North Louisiana, U.S. Census Bureau, Louisiana Economic Development
This article was originally published by Lex Talamo on February 4, 2017 in the Shreveport Times