Groundbreakings are truly wonderful occasions. Although mostly ceremonious, there’s something so hopeful and energizing about a community coming together to celebrate that first shovel of dirt before a new building project comes to life.
That’s how it felt when hundreds of people attended the Urban League of Greater Madison’s groundbreaking on April 8 for a $25.5 million, four-story Black Business Hub in South Madison.
Historic, innovative, and sorely needed, the Hub will host retail space for Black-owned businesses, and serve as a small business incubator and accelerator, providing Black entrepreneurs with the training, educational assistance, coaching, marketing, and human resource services needed to get their businesses off the ground.
Perhaps what’s most impressive, aside from the coalition of federal, state, county and municipal powers that came together to raise a lot of the funds needed for the Black Business Hub, was the focus of the project on giving agency to South Madison.
For Dr. Ruben Anthony, the Urban League’s president and CEO, the Hub represents a hopeful path forward for the area.
“We’re going to build an economic development engine right here in South Madison that will continue to bear economic fruit for multiple generations,” he said at the groundbreaking. “This will be the gift that will keep on giving to our kids and our grandkids.”
Dr. Anthony is correct; the Black Business Hub is indeed so much more than just a retail space — it will be a place where the racial disparities in small business ownership are minimized and ultimately where generational wealth is created.
In Dane County, according to 2017 American Community Survey data, only 39 or .4 percent of the 9,755 employers with more than one employee are Black-owned businesses. This disparity mirrors national trends, where of the 13 million business owners across the country, only 5.1 percent are African American workers and 7.5 percent are Latino.
From facing lending discrimination to the difficulty of accumulating startup financial capital, owning a successful small business as a Black person is an uphill battle. And until now, nothing like the Black Business Hub has existed for the South Madison community or much of Dane County.
“We are betting on South Madison,” Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said at the groundbreaking. “We are betting on Black businesses and we are betting on the Urban League.
The city of Madison, in addition to donating the parcel of land the Hub will occupy and staff time, will invest $10 million dollars in the project — specifically infrastructure, according to Rhodes-Conway. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin also announced during the event that the federal government would pitch in $1 million. And entities like American Family Insurance, the Schlecht Family Foundation and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, as well as individual donors, have donated to the project as well.
And this is where the real wins will be — the continued investment of our community into the Black Business Hub.
The groundbreaking can not represent the end of assistance from our municipal, county, state or national governments, but rather the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial collaboration. Black entrepreneurs and the people they serve are also betting that these community entities will help fill in any funding gaps that might appear as this project expands and succeeds.
Historic racial disparities, both on a local and national level, are going to take a lot of effort to counteract. And that effort will require lots of resources.
Take COVID for example: The virus has had a detrimental effect on the economy as a whole, but a disproportionate impact on minority-owned businesses. According to an H&R Block survey of 3,000 small businesses in 2021, 53 percent of Black business owners saw their revenue drop by half, compared to 37 percent of white owners, since the pandemic started. This means that minority-owned small businesses will need extra support to make it through this pandemic and any future surges it might hold.
Whatever happens, the people of Dane County and Wisconsin must be ready to pitch in when the Urban League asks. But while there’s much to work towards, if the optimism present at the groundbreaking is any indication, there are good things to come.