November 30, 2021

‘Work for what I want’

Cortland’s Black business owners share experiences

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Walter Davis, owner of Tag Me 607 in Cortlandville, moves a speaker recently at his business. Davis, one of few Black business owners in Cortland County, said a business partner made access to start-up capital easier, but that’s not something all Black business owners can say.

There have been days Darris McDowell has spent all day at his business in downtown Cortland. and not made a single sale.

Walter Davis said he has a business partner with access to capital to help him open his Cortlandville business. If he hadn’t, he might never have opened his doors.

The problem for Antoine Rogers? Rent: $1,000 a month can be difficult for a start-up business. These entrepreneurs — a restaurateur, an entertainment operator and a photographer — come from three very different industries. They have, however, one thing in common.

They’re all Black.

If you were to walk around and shop in Cortland, you’d probably noticed that virtually all the businesses have white owners. According to the Brookings Institute, Black-owned businesses make up only 4.3% of the 22.2 million businesses in America, even though Black people make up 12.7% of the population.

Those numbers aren’t kept in Cortland County, said Bob Haight, the president and CEO of the Cortland County Chamber of Commerce, which honored Black business owners earlier this month. But the chamber is looking to diversify its business ownership and get as many people involved as possible.

Challenges can get in the way. “We know that having more perspectives involved helps everyone,” Haight said. “We always want to look to be diverse.”

Dependence on capital

Racism in business isn’t always apparent, as the experience for some Black business owners in Cortland can show.

Walter Davis, a co-owner of Tag Me 607 in Cortlandville, said access to capital could have prevented him from ever starting the business had he not met his business partner, Melvin Cruz.

“Capital was definitely an issue for sure,” he said. “Especially for someone who never ran or started their own business. No bank wanted to say, ‘OK, here’s some money. Let’s see how you do.’”

In fact, while 4% of white-owned businesses open without bank financing, more than 20% of Black-owned businesses open the same way, researchers from Duke University, Brandeis University and Ohio State University found in a study published in October. Black business owners are also more likely to use personal savings and credit cards to get started, rather than investors and creditors.

Cruz mostly handled the financial end of the business while Davis worked on building the laser tag and entertainment venue last year on Route 281 in Cortlandville, Davis said. The business opened in February.

“Initially, it was great,” Davis said. “We had a lot of bookings for the birthday parties.”

Then COVID came, forcing the closure until the first week of July, during which Davis had to look for new ways of getting revenue. That came in the form of renting out a 24-square-foot inflatable movie screen, popcorn and cotton candy machines for people to have their own personal movie theater experience.

Even with the reopening, Davis has continued to rent out those items as business has slowed.

“I got to be creative and try to figure out different ways for people to be entertained at this time,” he said.

Still, Davis said he doesn’t see race behind many issues he faces running a business. And those he has, he just works to keep pushing through.

“There are limitations but I try to look beyond that and try to say, ‘Even if I am behind, I’ve got to go work for what I want,’” he said.

“Nobody’s going to do it for me.”

The issues

For Black and minority business owners, getting started or building up their businesses can be a struggle due to their lack of social currency, or not being well connected within the community, said J. Christopher Hamilton, an associate professor of TV, radio and film at Syracuse University.

Hamilton, whose research deals with race and business monetization, said that in white majority areas, such as Cortland and other places in Central New York, social connections can have a large influence on business. That can be a challenge for Black and other minority business owners if they are not connected with organization or governmental officials, who tend to be white.

“If you’re not interconnected with those people, you’re going to have a harder time running a business,” Hamilton said.

Additionally, Hamilton said, Black business owners have a harder time gaining access to loans from banks.

His claims were backed up by a report from the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, which found that between 2012 and 2017, 17% of Black owned businesses applied for funding from banks but only 47% were accepted. In comparison to white owned businesses, the numbers were 13% that applied and 75% that were accepted.

“Even if you do get the financing for your business, you’re probably going to be paying more than the white business owner,” in interest, Hamilton said.

Creating the change

For Haight, having a diverse group of business owners helps community well-being.

But Cortland businesses lack diversity, he said; only a handful of owners are people of color.

That may be because of the lack of access to capital for Black and other non-white people to start a business, Haight said.

“They may not have anyone in their life who they can go to for an initial boost,” which tends to happen for white business owners, he said.

The Chamber of Commerce is working to get more Black and nonwhite business up and running by creating a diversity and inclusion committee to help discuss the issues they face and how to address them.

Moreso, Haight wants potential business owners to know that the Chamber of Commerce is available to help with information on grants, such as for the microenterprise grant program run through Thoma Development Consultants that provides grants ranging from $5,000 to $35,000 for businesses with five workers or fewer.

The Cortland County Industrial Development Agency can help provide services that a bank provides, like lending loans, but will be more willing to lend where banks might be more reserved, Haight said.

One of the biggest issues Black and other minority business or potential business owners may face is the mentality that they can’t be successful.

“All it takes in Cortland is to know that we have people that can help you do that,” Haight said. “We love entrepreneurs. We want people to take the risk and start businesses.”

Fortitude mentality

Darris McDowell, the owner of The Squeeze Juice Bar on Main Street in Cortland, said that race hasn’t been an issue for him running his business, but staying positive is.

“Everyone shows me a lot of love here,” he said. “White, Black, Puerto Rican and Asian. Everybody comes here.”

McDowell, who started the juice bar in 2017, said that like Davis, he was able to get help along the way from other business owners and members of the community, including the Chamber of Commerce.

“They’ve been a great deal of help to me as far as sending my business out there, sending me different grants and loans I can apply for,” McDowell said.

His biggest challenge has been keeping a positive mentality, he said, noting there have been days where he hasn’t made a single sale.

That hasn’t stopped him, or other Black business owners like Antoine Rogers from pursuing their business passions.

Rogers, who runs Classic House Photos, a photography business, from his house on Frederick Avenue,
said more than any other issue he’s faced finding a place to rent to set up his business in the city, which he said can cost more than $1,000 a month plus utilities.

Rogers would like to get a space for his business on Main Street, where he hopes he can inspire kids to do photography and express themselves through it.

“I think the rent is just crazy out here,” he said.