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With new program, Baltimore’s Downtown Partnership looks to boost Black-owned businesses

With an eye toward increasing Black-owned retail businesses in downtown Baltimore, the Downtown Partnership is launching an initiative that will pair creative Black businesses with vacant storefronts, and connect them with technical, marketing and other expertise.

The program, nicknamed The Downtown BOOST, for Black-Owned and Occupied Storefront Tenancy, will give selected businesses $50,000 to help renovate a vacant storefront space and pay for other expenses. It will target businesses that are online and looking to move to a brick-and-mortar spot, or expand to a new location.

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Black businesses have faced a long history of discrimination in terms of access to capital and loans, something program organizers hope to help overcome. In the city, according to an economic development plan being drafted, Black-owned businesses are significantly underrepresented, at only about 10% of all privately held businesses with employees, said Colin Tarbert, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp.

At a news conference Wednesday, Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott noted that he comes from a family with a small Black-owned business, and he said he knows what these businesses mean to the community.

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“I know firsthand that our Black-owned businesses have been disenfranchised and kept out of the process of having equitable support to initiate and sustain their business,” said Scott. “We know that they are the backbone of Baltimore, which is a Black city.”

Fearless, a $40 million technology company based in downtown Baltimore, is the program’s title sponsor. The firm’s president and founder, Delali Dzirasa, who is Black, has long helped Black entrepreneurs.

Delali Dzirasa, president and CEO of Fearless, poses in the shared workspace Spark in downtown Baltimore Thu., April 18, 2019.
Delali Dzirasa, president and CEO of Fearless, poses in the shared workspace Spark in downtown Baltimore Thu., April 18, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

“We have an opportunity to shift the narrative and create a culture that values Black businesses,” Dzirasa said. “BOOST provides capital and business tools to begin to overcome the systemic and structurally racist policies that have prevented Black people from building generational wealth for decades.”

Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership, said the program is partly modeled on successful storefront challenges, like the one on Howard Row. In May 2020, Market Center awarded two businesses free rent for a year.

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“Part of the goal is that we want to fill vacant spaces so it can enhance the pedestrian experience and decrease the opportunity for crime,” Stokes said. “We want to keep the area as vibrant as possible so that everywhere you go, it’s reflective of the demographics of this city.”

Shelonda Stokes is the president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.
Shelonda Stokes is the president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

The program will start accepting applications this month. Applicants can attend open houses and tour vacant storefronts. Applications are due March 10. Five winners will be announced in April.

The group of five will be in a cohort that will either be physically located together or have a shared online presence that will help direct city dwellers to each of the businesses. Stokes said the plan is to launch a new cohort annually.

In addition to sponsor Fearless, the program is getting support from a list of groups and businesses, including BGE, which donated $100,000 through a grant.

Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture. Follow her @tatyanacturner

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