Doing Business in Harlem: Rough going for small business owners

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The news is hardly encouraging. The state of Harlem’s small business economy has not changed from last year, or the year before that. When the names of Harlem businesses forced to close within the past year appeared on the screen during a video presentation at the third annual Harlem Business Economic Summit recently, it became apparent that the situation might be worse. As the names appeared, gasps and ‘oh noes’ from Summit attendees filled the room. Small business owners in Harlem are reeling from a lack of affordable commercial space, access to capital and strategic marketing.

With the exception of the video and perhaps the uplifting opening remarks by Lee Dunham, president of TCM Management Corp., who owns and operates six McDonald’s restaurants in New York and New Jersey, the Summit hosted by Harlem Business Alliance echoed the challenges and promises of previous years. Political and local leaders pledged once more to provide affordable commercial space, access to capital, marketing and tourism awareness.
Is the future of small business enterprise doomed in Harlem?

“Things have changed. While we’ve had a dramatic explosion in business investment, we’ve also had a dramatic explosion in rent, and affordable housing is becoming less and less possible. We need to see what we can do,” said U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel. 

Harlem Business Alliance Chairman Walter Edwards challenged members of the New York City Council and other lawmakers to turn the situation around. “Our businesses need subsidized or commercial space. We subsidized residential space. We have to find a way to subsidize our small businesses and keep them in place,” he said.

Newly elected Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer, who is white, pledged his support, noting that tourism is a major component in keeping small businesses alive in Harlem. Tourists come from England and France, for example, to see the great churches in Harlem, he said. “But, like other parts of Manhattan, this is a community that does not get the resources to make tourism a reality.”

Stringer, a member of the board of directors of NYC & Co., New York City’s official tourism agency, promised to market Harlem as a tourist destination.  “I am telling them the new frontier is north of 96th Street. Forty-four million people will visit New York City, and we should get them to visit uptown as well,” he said.

The all-day summit, held at the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Office Building on 125th Street, addressed that question and others, such as financing for small businesses and growing a successful small business. Kwame Jackson, CEO of Legacy Holdings L.L.C., whose claim to fame is his appearance on Donald Trumps’ Apprentice TV show, was the keynote speaker. The event drew more than 250 small business owners, as well as corporate, local and political leaders. Once again, the Harlem Business Alliance issued its recommendations to address the sad state of affairs in 2005.
Will 2006 be the same?