City Commissioners Consider Funding For Minority And Other Start-Up Businesses

Gow Fields

The Lakeland Chamber of Commerce is hoping to help minority and other potential start-up companies open shop in the city and are asking city commissioners to approve up to $800,000 in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to lure already established minority business associations to town.

However, the chamber might find itself competing for funds with another city favorite: the Mayor’s Council on the Arts.

“Why we’re here today is to talk about how the chamber and the chamber foundation envision positioning Lakeland in a much more robust business ecosystem so that our businesses are able to access the same services and resources that our competitors and Tampa and Orlando are able to,” Chamber Executive Director Amy Wiggins told city commissioners during their Monday morning meeting.

Wiggins brought with her James Randolph and Albert Lee of the Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corporation, which was founded 35 years ago to help minority business owners in Tampa, along with Fabian Yepez, the vice president of Prospera USA, which was founded 30 years ago and helps Hispanic business owners in Central Florida.

Some of the services both groups provide include seminars on opening and maintaining a business, links to funding sources, and even grants.

Former Lakeland Mayor Gow Fields is helping to steer the formal request and remembered a time when both the Chamber of Commerce and the City Commission did not look like it does now.

Former Mayor Gow Fields speaks at Monday’s City Commission meeting.

“My first tenure on the chamber board was in the late 80s early 90s. It is a different Chamber of Commerce, as far as being inviting and inclusive,” Fields said. “My first time on the chamber board, there was still a North Lakeland Merchants Association. It had nothing to do with color. They didn’t believe the chamber cared about anybody north of I-4. And so a lot has had to go into making the incremental changes of the chamber.”

George Jenkins

Fields said the Chamber Foundation board wants to use its funds and any funding from the city or county in a way they feel Publix Super Markets founder George Jenkins would want.  In 1973, Jenkins contributed $500,000 to create the Lakeland Chamber Foundation, a separate non-profit entity from The Lakeland Chamber of Commerce. It is currently in the midst of changing from a private foundation to a public one.

“We have an opportunity before us today with all that we’ve learned in that time has gone by to breathe a new level of life into the original vision that he had,” Fields said.

Fields said in 1989, he was chairman of the Minority Business Development Division of the Central Florida Development Council. He tried then to partner with Tampa’s BBIC.

“They were kind with the response, but they did tell us that I-4 goes in both directions and we could get on the road to get to them,” Fields said. “This is our first opportunity to actually have them here. We’re at a much different place than we were in the late 80s. The way we’re situated today, we can do a great job for our people if we bring them here and allow them to unleash their expertise and resources in this community to benefit our people.”

Lee, BBIC president and chief executive officer, said the BBIC has been very interested in opening an office in Lakeland because its primary responsibility has been to provide support and services to small business owners, most of whom were disadvantaged, didn’t have capital resources, and did not have the support of solid technical assistance in their communities.

Albert Lee, left, and James Randolph of Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corp.

“That’s what the Tampa Bay BBIC has done for 35 years, is bringing those services to those communities and I think we’ve done it quite well. To date we’ve loaned over $20 million in those years that we’ve been around,” Lee said. “Just within the last year, year and a half, through some of our partnerships with one of our banking partners, we’ve been able to move that needle even further by providing about $3.5 million in approved loans to small businesses.”

He said BBIC is, first and foremost, a technical assistance provider, but they also have the ability to provide financial capital out of their own funds, and couple clients with banking partners.

“One of the things we found is that those individuals needed to understand why they needed the capital and how they’re going to implement and use that capitol,” Lee said. “I was a banker for 25 to 30 years and mostly on commercial side. So I understand that side very well. I’ve also been an entrepreneur. I used to own a dry cleaning chain in Tampa as well. One of the things I found in my experience with BBIC over the last 10 years is that a lot of people want to be business owners; they just don’t have that technical assistance together. And in our communities, people like to work with folks from their community because they feel you understand their situation and you can speak that language and I think that’s what the BBIC brings.”

Randolph, who is BBIC vice chairman, has owned a small business in Brandon for 27 years, Carolina Consulting Solutions, so he is familiar with the rigors of starting and maintaining a business. He would serve as the BBIC liaison in Lakeland if given the funding.

“I’ve gone in on Lakeland at 75 miles an hour down Interstate 4 and saw the signs that said Lakeland. When I came back, I saw the same signs,” Randolph said. “Finally I got off the road and came in about two and a half years ago and started to see what you’re doing in the city and I was quite impressed.”

Prospera Florida’s Yepes pointed out that in the last 10 years, Lakeland’s Hispanic population has grown more than 34% and Polk County’s has expanded by 82%.

“Looking at the changes that have been around in this area, you can see there’s a there’s a great need for our services,” Yepes said. “We offer businesses one-on-one consultation for business seminars. We do we help with business grants — not in money, but in in services. And we do help, as well, with access to capital, even though we don’t give money directly.”

Yepes said in the early throes of the COVID economy two years ago, Prospero provided a loan to a Lakeland daycare business.

“They were affected and they were able to not only not close three locations, but were able to remodel and build a fourth one,” Yepes said, adding that “Hispanics like to work among the same group. There’s more trust and adding to the difficulties of just how to open a business and how to work a business. We find that obviously there’s the language barrier. That is always very important and the way that business is done in the United States vs. maybe the countries from where they come from.”

Fields added that the business owner had placed the daycare center company in the name of their minor child —  a common practice in Latin America.  A bank couldn’t loan the company money because they can’t loan to a minor child. Yepes helped to straighten out the ownership issue.

He also said that they would work alongside entities like Catapult and The Well, which are also business incubators.

Commissioners had financial questions for Fields and the officials.

City commissioners and staff members

Commissioner Bill “Tiger” Read wanted to know if money given to the companies would be grants or loans.  Fields said they would be loans that would need to be paid back.

“The common phrase that we’ve used in America is that people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” Fields said. “Well, if their boots are broken, somebody’s got to step in and show them how to fix the boots, including the bootstrap, then we can work on puling. If they don’t have a pair of boots with bootstraps, we can help them identify how do you go about doing that. So they too can help pull themselves up by those same bootstraps and so it is reaching a little bit deeper than a typical banking relationship will, but there are no grants.”

Read then wanted to know who would be eligible for funding.

I’m usually the ‘No’ guy — I mean everybody knows I’m the hard guy to get money out of,” Read said. “I want it to go to all our citizens. I don’t want it to go to any one ethnicity or group per se.  And so I need some assurance it s going to go there.  Everybody needs money vs. just Hispanic or women or etcetera. Is that something that’s within the protocol or does your funding require that it goes to these different groups?”

Fields assured him that everyone would be welcome to utilize the BBIC and Prospera.

“Our approach has been that it is open to everyone. It’s not limited by race, by membership in any way, shape or form,” Fields said. “That has been what we have shared with them. They do attract people who look like them and understand them better, but they don’t close the doors on anyone.”

Commissioner Stephanie Madden then asked if this proposed program would be a way to help make up for past systemic racial injustices in Lakeland, including taking by eminent domain and tearing down the historic Black neighborhood of Moorehead to build what’s now known as the RP Funding Center, and erecting a Confederate monument in the town square. She asked if the chamber and business community would be more diverse because of the program.

“I think the whole nation has had soul searching the last six years. It’s been a part of our conversation for decades,” Madden said. “So I want to I’d like to hear a little more about how you feel and not just reaching out to people who have been at risk or left behind, but how this integrates those folks into chamber membership, into city governance, into our downtown square, and commerce at large so when we look back a decade from now we’d say this was one more thing we did at a pivotal time in our community’s history to embrace diversity and to make sure that we put our money where our mouth is, that we invested. And that’s what I’m trying to kind of gauge, if this is something that would have that kind of effect, or is this just another organization here today asking for funds, competing with so many other organizations that were hurt during COVID?”

Fields said he became emotional as he listened to Madden speak about segregated swimming pools in his lifetime, along with people who shared their stories of segregation when the City Commission was considering moving the Confederate monument, which it did in 2019 to Veteran’s Park.

“If we were building a house that was going to allow everyone to come and access the resources that they needed, we will first have to lay the foundation,” Fields said. We don’t have the house, if you will. Because we don’t have the foundation for it to sit on. Having BBIC and Prospera here, along with the Chamber Foundation staff … and the ability to bring other private gifts to the table. Without the foundation, we can’t build the house you described. With the foundation being laid, we’re going to wow you. We’re asking you to help us lay the foundation.”

City Manager Shawn Sherrouse reminded the commissioners that there was another request for ARPA funding from the Mayor’s Council on the Arts.

Mayor Bill Mutz said the council, which he notes actually belongs to the whole city, has a line item of $275,000 in the city’s budget, the same amount it received last year and about $25,000 more than in years past. But Council Chair Kerry Falwell is planning to officially ask for about one-third of that in ARPA funding. She is scheduled to speak to commissioners at their next meeting, which is scheduled for Sept. 6.

“It will be for all the of the smaller art entities who lost disproportionate amounts of money during COVID that were Council of the Arts members last year,” Mutz said.

Sherrouse said staff has been considering requests and there are options they could present and possibly recommend that could lower or lessen some of the ancillary costs that go along with certain resources for funding.

“So we’re prepared to have that discussion,” Sherrouse said. “The thought is that maybe we have the two presentations and then we have the discussion about the sources of funding and the level, if any commissioner would like to allocate, probably then, our first public budget hearing in that two-hearing processes in September. If that’s the pleasure of commission.”

Looking around at the commissioners, Mutz said they all seemed to be unofficially in favor of waiting for staff recommendations.

“I think we’re all thumbs up,” Mutz said.

The next city commission meeting is September 6 and budget hearings are scheduled for September 8 and September 22.

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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