Mayor Berke has first meeting with his minority business owners task force

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke announces that the city will participate in the Department of Energy's Better Buildings Challenge in this 2016 file photograph.

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Brandon EllisCarolyn JonesDan AndersonDonna ElleErwin OvalleGenia ChurchIrv OvertonIvette RiosJorge PerezMarco PerezMaria NoelMarty LoweShamila TaylorSharon KellySteve TalleyTim JonesTracee SmithTravis LytleVeronica DunsonVincent PhippsWarren Logan

Veronica Dunson and her husband, Napoleon, have been in business for nearly 20 years, but they still aren't aware of some business opportunities until they read about them after they've occurred.

Several minority-owned business task force members said they've had similar experiences.

"It's like someone asking you why didn't you come to the party," Vincent Phipps said. "The answer is, 'I didn't get invited.'"

Phipps, owner of Communication VIP Training and Coaching, and Veronica Dunson, of Dunson Auto Repair, were among 17 minority business owners attending Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's first meeting with his minority business owners task force.

The group is charged with meeting monthly to discuss barriers facing minority businesses in Chattanooga and ways to overcome. They had their first meeting as a task force Tuesday.

"Nothing is off the table," Berke said when Chattanooga Urban League Executive Director Warren Logan asked the mayor if the city would consider providing seed money to minority businesses.

Berke said it may be a harder task to accomplish, but if the task force can explain why the city should do it, he's willing to have a conversation about it.

Task force member Carolyn Jones asked if the mayor would consider changes to the city's purchasing department.

"I've also identified some things that the purchasing department could do better to help us get where we need to go," she said. "So is that going to be a part of the discussion?"

"Absolutely," the mayor said.

Donna Williams, economic and community development administrator for the city, explained the possibility of a disparity study to justify the need for certain laws to be changed. It's a six-figure engagement that could cost anywhere from $100,000 to $250,000, but doing it would allow the possibility of moving forward in some areas where they are now hindered, she said.

"We're not doing this because we don't have anything to do or because you all have nothing to do," Williams said. "We need meaningful things to come out of this task force, actionable things."

The mayor signed an executive order on March 7 to start the task force less than a month after meeting with about 40 minority business owners and hearing them discuss their challenges of doing business. He said the city has increased over the past two years the amount of business it does with minority owners from about 2 percent to more than 13.5 percent, but he wants improvement for minority businesses to continue beyond city government contracts.

City multicultural affairs director James McKissic, the office of Economic and Community Development and the mayor's office assisted in selecting business owners for the task force. The group includes 20 people, mostly black with some Hispanics and a number of women.

Task force member Tim Jones, events coordinator with the Innovation Center, said he's excited to be among the people sitting at the table to foster improvement for minority businesses.

"I'm glad that the mayor wants to do more for minorities and he's trying to make steps," Jones said. "He's humble enough to say he doesn't know everything and put together a crew, and I'm proud to be a part of it."

Contact staff writer Yolanda Putman at yputman@timesfreepreess.com or 423-757-6431.