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Wall St.and Business Wednesdays: African Town Plan Polarizes Detroit by Natalie Y. Moore


Claud Anderson is leading Detroit down an untraveled path.

The Maryland-based economist is trumpeting black business ownership centered on light industry. He is seeking city government backing for a plan which, based on the exclusion of other ethnic groups, is likely to present legal challenges. A Hispanic group has already raised the specter of a lawsuit, and Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has questioned the legality of the plan.

The proposal has created a tempest among City Council members and Metro Detroit residents. What remains to be seen is whether Anderson’s plan will take another, less abrasive form or whether the whole issue of an “African Town” will go away.

Playing on the historic promise to freed slaves of 40 acres and a mule, Anderson says he wants the city to adopt a black-owned business district of that size that gives loans only to African-Americans.

The hurdles are huge.

Community groups are outraged at the anti-immigrant language in Anderson’s report. Kilpatrick is keeping the rhetoric at arm’s length. Urban planners are viewing the proposal skeptically — other cities have employed less controversial means to revitalize downtrodden urban centers and empower black entrepreneurs.

“On one hand, there’s the issue of will spurring black business development within the central city serve to increase employment and reduce poverty,” said Casey Dawkins, an assistant professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. “On the other hand, is it the right thing for Detroit — for the larger Detroit region it doesn’t help race relations.”

The council hired Anderson earlier this year and voted in favor of two resolutions in July. One expressed intent to establish an economic corporation that would lend $30 million of already-earmarked casino money to blacks. The second declared black Detroiters the “majority underserved population.”

Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel, who voted against the proposals, raised the specter of African-Americans losing money that is intended for minorities, if the council says that blacks are now a majority.

The mayor vetoed both resolutions, but the council overrode his vetoes.

In any event, some $30 million in casino revenue, earmarked for small-business development, is part of the city’s agreement with the casinos. Kilpatrick has said there is no legal authority for the city to establish a new agency that would use casino money for Anderson’s project. That authority would have to come from the state, he said.

Nonetheless, city officials from the Kilpatrick administration have been showing Anderson land, treating him as any other interested developer.

Shaky track record

Three years ago, Anderson floated his black empowerment message to Akron, Ohio. He offered his services to the black chamber of commerce, hoping to build a large indoor fishery that would have created dozens of jobs for blacks. Anderson said — as he does in the Detroit report — that African-Americans eat three to four times more seafood than whites. He offered no source for that contention.

The project never moved beyond an idea. Now he is promoting a no-bid seafood factory here.

Armed with a lengthy resume, Anderson has promoted his popular book “PowerNomics: The National Plan to Empower Black America.” He has served as state coordinator of education for former Gov. Reubin Askew of Florida and as assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Commerce under President Carter.

Anderson, whom the council hired for $112,000, did not return several phone calls from The Detroit News.

In Anderson’s report to the council, he says, “One of the most serious handicaps of the city’s majority population is its failure to use this majority status to advance its economic goals. ... Blacks can however constitute an effective numerical majority if they act as a group.”

Cockrel and Councilwoman Kay Everett voted against the resolutions.

“We can’t say we’ll only give money to black people. If I were white, Hispanic or any other nationality I’d be highly upset and consider this racist,” Everett said.

Councilwoman Sharon McPhail acknowledged some of Anderson’s comments could be seen as anti-immigrant, but said she supported the concept of black ownership.

‘African Town’

Kathie Dones-Carson, head of the Detroit Black Chamber of Commerce, said there are 12,000 black businesses in the city, where black poverty and black wealth coexist. Each year, the city ranks in Black Enterprise magazine’s list of top 100 black businesses.

Malik Yakini owns Black Star Community Bookstore on Livernois along the Avenue of Fashion and last year hosted a talk by Anderson.

“I’m not anti-immigrant,” said Yakini, who supports creating a black district. “We (blacks) have not stepped up to the plate ourselves because of our diminished sense of self.”

African Town is the label some use in describing Anderson’s idea. But the resolutions the council passed never mention that phrase. Defenders of the plan such as Councilwoman JoAnn Watson say it’s not unlike local Mexicantown or Greektown.

Dones-Caron disagrees, saying Anderson’s development would not be a cultural attraction, but, rather, an industrial operation.

She is not recommending the plan to her members, who are also concerned about their access to the $30 million in casino money for development.

“I believe that black is beautiful but I don’t believe any other group of color is negative for mine to be beautiful,” Dones-Carson said. “(Anderson’s plan) raises a lot of concerns about how we view other communities.”

Decades ago, Detroit did have a designated area where black business thrived. Black Bottom, also known as Paradise Valley, was the cultural and economic epicenter for African-Americans from the 1920s until its decline in the 1950s.

Forced to live there because of deed restrictions that made it illegal to rent or buy property elsewhere in the city, black migrants from the South transformed an east side pocket into a niche of vibrant businesses, where a vivacious nightlife boomed.

Cleveland’s Chinatown has been renovated with private development. Chicago is revitalizing dilapidated Englewood with a $250 million plan. In Baltimore, a city agency helps minority companies get city contracts.

Bruce Katz, director of the metropolitan policy program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said cities need to focus on nailing down the basics when recruiting small businesses.

“No government program is going to overcome unsafe streets or a broken regulatory system,” Katz said.

Natalie Y. Moore writes for The Detroit News and can be contacted at: nmoore@detnews.com


Note: This article first appeared at The Detroit News


Wednesday, October 6, 2004

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