Walmart closures can pave the way for local small businesses in Chicago

One of the best examples of small business incubation in Black neighborhoods is New Black Wall Street in Atlanta, Marc Morial writes.

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The Walmart Supercenter in Chatham, one of four Walmart locations that closed on April 16.

The Walmart Supercenter in Chatham, one of four Walmart locations that closed on April 16.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

It is all too tempting to seek a big, simple answer for a series of complex problems.

That appears to be what happened when Chicago’s leaders relied on promises from a single big-box retailer to provide an economic engine for some of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.

The closure of four Chicago Walmart stores, three of which served low-income/working-class communities of color, leaves people wondering where they will buy groceries and shoes and medicine.

What we should be wondering is whether a single retailer that sells groceries and shoes and medicine is the best business model for a neighborhood that desperately needs not just access to goods, but also economic opportunity.

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At the National Urban League and our 92 affiliates across the country, we recognize that small businesses are the lifeblood not just of the urban communities we serve, but of the U.S. economy as a whole. Small businesses create two-thirds of net new jobs and account for 44% of our economic activity.

For every dollar spent at a small business, 68 cents stays in the local community. That dollar further creates an additional 48 cents in local business activity as a result of employees and local businesses purchasing local goods and services.

New York Public Markets, Atlanta’s New Black Wall Street

In 2020 and 2021, as Black-owned businesses were closing at twice the rate of white-owned enterprises during the economic disruption of a worldwide pandemic, our Urban League Entrepreneurship Centers created more than 1,300 new small businesses.

The departure of Walmart creates an opportunity for the city to partner with small businesses to create sustainable, thriving retail centers that contribute to the economic vitality of the communities they serve.

New York City, where the National Urban League is headquartered, has partnered with small businesses to provide affordable fresh food to communities throughout the city since 1937. Each of the six NYC Public Markets reflects the cultural heritage and history of its neighborhood, from the Latino influences of East Harlem’s La Marqueta to the Italian traditions of Arthur Avenue Market in The Bronx.

One of the best examples of this kind of partnership actually grew out of an abandoned big-box store on the edge of Atlanta, Georgia.

At the New Black Wall Street Market in Stonecrest, more than 100 mostly minority-owned small businesses line the aisles of a former Target store — aisles that now bear the names of famous Black entrepreneurs like Madam C.J. Walker and A. G. Gaston.

Developer Lecester “Bill” Allen created the project through his small business incubator, The Allen Entrepreneurial Institute. The Institute is a “spoke” in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Community Navigator Program that supports small businesses in underserved communities. The National Urban League serves as a “hub” for the program.

Allen was inspired by the historic Greenwood community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, also known as Black Wall Street, which was destroyed in the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. He had hoped to open on the 100th anniversary of the massacre in June of 2021, but the pandemic delayed the opening until October.

“I just think that this country being built on the backs of slavery — we don’t own enough of this country which we have built,” Allen said.

In addition to charging below-market rent, the market offers four membership tiers: resident merchant, pop-up, consignment, and virtual. The pop-up option allows for trial runs, pending space availability and product approval.

Before the market opened in the fall of 2021, the residents of Stonecrest — which is 90% Black — had to leave their neighborhood to do most of their shopping or eating out. Now, not only are their dollars staying in their local community, people from outside the neighborhood are flocking to the market. It has become a destination for tourists and visiting dignitaries alike.

“I hope this will be duplicated all across the country,” Allen told Capital B News. “I would hope that in small towns and villages we can take self-ownership, and we can own things within our community and beyond.”

Chicago’s leadership, as well as the leaders of many urban communities, should seek a new model such as the New Black Wall Street Project — because bigger is not always better.

Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League. He served as mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002 and is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Georgetown University Law Center.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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