Feb. 17, 2022
Legacy businesses are an important part of the fabric of a community. Although definitions vary, they are generally considered to be those longstanding, character-defining independent enterprises — barber shops, bakeries, and bookstores — that have sustained a sense of place for a generation or more. Planners can play a role in highlighting the contributions of legacy businesses, understanding their unique needs, supporting their growth, and helping them overcome challenges.
Promoting and supporting legacy businesses is especially salient in historically Black commercial corridors, which often play an essential role in maintaining cultural vibrancy and identity. Many of the institutional and structural barriers that led to the creation of these Black business districts in the first place remain, with minority-owned businesses facing persistent challenges accessing capital; building wealth through home ownership; tapping into professional networks and public sector initiatives; and more recently, accessing COVID-19 relief funds. Studies from early in the pandemic, in fact, show that Black-owned businesses were twice as likely to close as white-owned businesses.
"Many are still in crisis management mode," reports Chris Dickey, a senior community and economic development analyst in Durham, North Carolina. To help, Durham has launched a pilot program for 10 legacy businesses focused around the tradition of Black Wall Street, which was lauded by Booker T. Washington as a shining example of entrepreneurial activity in 1911. Durham's local efforts are bolstered by its participation in the multicity Shared Equity in Economic Development (SEED) Fellowship, organized by the National League of Cities and the Democracy at Work Institute (DAWI), a national organization dedicated to worker cooperative development.
Some 500 miles away, Birmingham, Alabama, also is paying special attention to its second- and third-generation enterprises, including those that are Black-owned. In 2020, the city launched its Legacy Business Program. Percy B. Hornbuckle Jr., one of the first recipients of the legacy business designation, is the second-generation owner of the Magic City Barber Shop & Shave Parlor in the historic Fourth Avenue District, which gained a national reputation in the first half of the 20th century as a Black business and entertainment district.
So, what can local governments and grassroots advocates do to help? Legacy Business Programs: Emerging Directions delves into programs that promote and support legacy businesses, from San Francisco to San Antonio to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here, we build on the advice in that January 2022 PAS Memo, enriched by the perspectives of these practitioners working in historically Black commercial districts. Read on for five things planners should keep in mind.
1. Recognize the cultural significance of Black enterprises.
Regular, face-to-face interactions between proprietors and customers have been a hallmark of legacy businesses, from restaurants to repair shops, framers to funeral homes. These community anchors become venues for sharing and passing on the knowledge and stories that sustain communities.
In Durham, Andre Pettigrew, the director of economic and workforce development, stresses that such enterprises contribute culturally, socially, and politically. "They are more than a building and more than an address," he says.
Longtime barber Percy Hornbuckle uses similar phrasing to describe the services his 92-year-old Birmingham, Alabama, shop provides to his customers. It's "more than a haircut," he says. (That's also the title of a Governing article about barbershops' role in neighborhoods.)
Hornbuckle notes that many established customers "make a day" of going to the barber shop, sharing fellowship and community news, as well as benefiting from the haircutting and snack-making techniques passed down from his father. (Hornbuckle offers up his family's roasted peanuts, often with a Coke, to customers — foodways are part of the intangible heritage of the shop, neighborhood, and many Black-owned businesses in general.)
2. Be ready for a complicated story.
Legacy business programs can be a powerful way to spotlight the business acumen, innovation, and resilience of Black entrepreneurs and capitalize on the "surging interest" in Black history and Civil Rights sites. However, planners should also be prepared to acknowledge a more complicated and nuanced story about the cultural significance of businesses in historically Black neighborhoods.
Especially at a time of racial reckoning and threats of displacement, Durham's Pettigrew explains that the legacy business program is one way for community members to consciously "reclaim their roots." He sees tremendous local interest in independent Black entrepreneurship and anticipates incorporating the embedded knowledge, skills, and collective economic development represented by Black Wall Street into the branding for Durham's pilot initiative.
Likewise, people come to Birmingham precisely because of its place in American history, "not to see our shiny new shopping malls," says Hornbuckle. "They come from around the world to the Fourth Avenue District and to see Civil Rights history firsthand."
Oftentimes, he says, "it's hard for people to accept that things were as bad as they were." But, some of his customers were foot soldiers in the Civil Rights Movement that is highlighted in the nearby Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and his shop provides a venue for them to share eyewitness accounts of stories that can be "incomplete or sanitized in movies or books."
Initiatives to preserve overlooked Black narratives, like the National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, have been described by Mellon Foundation president Elizabeth Alexander as "rescue work," and the exercise can unearth painful stories. Oral histories, ideally conducted on site, are one way to reveal authentic and unvarnished perspectives and fill gaps not found in the official record.
3. Dig deep to collect relevant business data.
While your community's historic preservation staff, historical society, and local library can help, the history of commercial properties is not always easy to find. Moreover, access to business license and demographic data can be hard to obtain due to preemption laws and privacy concerns.
Durham commissioned a general business survey with over 750 responses. The survey revealed there were 70 African American-owned businesses that had been operating for more than 20 years, which proved invaluable in identifying the needs and concerns of Black business owners.
4. Partner with employee ownership programs with complementary aims
A significant challenge in preserving local ownership of iconic businesses is succession planning. Indeed, many fear a "silver tsunami" of baby boomer retirement that could result in business closures or purchases by national franchises or equity investors.
The stakes can seem particularly high in communities of color, since cultural identity and services are potentially at risk. Some legacy business initiatives, like Durham's, are exploring employee ownership programs in an effort to close the racial wealth gap and ensure legacy businesses can survive and thrive.
Zen Trenholm, director of Employee Ownership Cities and Policy at DAWI and manager of the SEED Fellowship program, explains that selling a longstanding business to employees can ensure that owners can exit receiving market value, and employees gain the opportunity to expand on their own institutional knowledge and share in the future business success.
5. Use legacy business programs to forge relationships and networks
Chris Dickey notes that peer networking "rose to the top" as an issue for the Durham legacy businesses he surveyed, and they use the program as a venue for supporting each other.
The same is true in Birmingham, where the legacy business program also acted as a go-between for merchants and other city agencies, says Hornbuckle, assisting him with issues from lighting to sanitation and exposing him to city processes. Customer-facing legacy businesses like barbers and salons were hit particularly hard by pandemic-related closures, and in both Durham and Birmingham, the programs provided clarification on how to navigate things like the Paycheck Protection Program and health protocols.
These initiatives alone cannot solve the myriad challenges faced by small businesses, but economic development officials and preservationists can join forces — as well as layer multiple efforts — to further equitable economic prosperity by supporting authentic longstanding enterprises. These programs are "one prong in a multipronged strategy," says SEED's Trenholm, adding that "we should always think of stacking programs on other programs to accomplish similar goals."