Chattanooga leaders have set aside $1.4 million in federal pandemic relief funds to establish a new minority business resource center at the Kelly Building, 332 East M.L. King Blvd., a project they envision as a hub and source of support for entrepreneurs.
Jermaine Freeman, Mayor Tim Kelly's senior adviser for economic opportunity, said the mayor's One Chattanooga framework includes a focus on strengthening economic vitality in the Black community, and as a former entrepreneur himself, Kelly sees it as a viable path into and beyond the middle class.
Despite the best efforts of the city and nonprofit organizations in the entrepreneurship space, Freeman told the Times Free Press by phone, there tends to be a perception among minority business owners that there aren't resources available for them in the local ecosystem, or they feel uncomfortable accessing existing services.
"It's very hard for an entrepreneur to ask for help," Freeman said. "It's one of the hardest things that an entrepreneur can do," and the added barriers of race and class compound those issues.
The new facility is part of an effort to bridge that gap. The center's location on M.L. King Boulevard, formerly Ninth Street, places it in a district that has been historically anchored by African American businesses, Freeman said.
"Ideally, we hope that the minority business resource center will sort of operate like a one-stop shop," Freeman said.
Entrepreneurs would be able to get technical assistance, business counseling services, access to mentoring programs and back-office support for things such as accounting, inventory management or human resources, Freeman said. Business owners could also receive help with web and digital services, such as designing a website or developing an app, and participate in classes and workshops.
It could also act as a way for business owners to access capital, connecting them with representatives from banks, credit unions or investors. Those are meetings that can sometimes be intimidating for small business owners, Freeman said, especially for small business owners of color.
"If we can bring some of those representatives to the minority business resource center to have those conversations in an environment that is less intimidating and less threatening, then that could also obviously be a big win," he said.
Freeman said the city has issued a request for proposals to select an organization to operate the resource center, which would include programming. Because they want the operator to provide input on the process, renovations to the building will begin once that selection is complete. The city already owns the two-story building.
Most of the $1.4 million would be needed for the physical rehabilitation of the structure, but some could be provided to the selected organization for programming purposes. Freeman anticipates the city could have an organization selected within the next month. That group would work closely with the city's new director of entrepreneurship, a position the city plans to post in the next few weeks.
In July, the mayor announced a spending plan for $30 million worth of American Rescue Plan Act dollars, an allotment the city received from the federal government during the pandemic. The City Council approved that plan in July.
Of that amount, $2.9 million was specifically reserved for expanding local access to entrepreneurship, with almost half of it going towards the development of the new facility on M.L. King Boulevard.
The Company Lab, a nonprofit focused on accelerating local startups, will receive $800,000. Director of Communications Chloé Morrison said that funding will allow the organization to provide direct investments to underserved startup founders so they can scale up their companies. The minimum investment would be $50,000.
"The overarching goal is to directly support promising entrepreneurs and -- through that -- help create generational wealth, as well as ripple effects on the local economy," Morrison said by email. "We want to provide a direct, positive financial impact on entrepreneurs, who have what it takes to grow their business and who have traditionally been underserved. Through that, we hope to help grow a more diverse and powerful local startup scene."
The remaining $700,000 will be split among three other organizations, according to a news release from the city.
The Net Resource Foundation will receive $250,000 to help revitalize the Alton Park business district, and RISE and LAUNCH will receive $250,000 and $200,000, respectively, to accelerate minority-owned startups in the culinary arts industry through development of a teaching kitchen and kitchen incubator.