Planning to Ensure Longevity for Small Minority-Owned Businesses
In this APA podcast - part of the Planning for Equity series - Bobby Boone, founder and chief strategist of &Access, discusses economic development strategies for combatting displacement of small minority-owned businesses. Boone shares how planners can work with small businesses, what to look out for, and how to engage owners.
[00:00:00.970] - Roberta Rewers
This is an APA podcast focusing on equity in practice. I'm Roberta Rewers, Senior Communications Manager for APA. Joining me today is Bobby Boone, founder and chief strategist of &Access, a retail, real estate and urban planning consultancy focusing on solutions for underinvested communities and historically excluded entrepreneurs. Thanks for joining me today, Bobby.
[00:00:24.310] - Bobby Boone
Thanks for having me.
[00:00:25.710] - Roberta Rewers
You spoke at NPC 23 about antidisplacement strategies, including identifying not only risks, but opportunities for small and local businesses. Where did your focus on displacement start for small businesses and local businesses?
[00:00:42.030] - Bobby Boone
Good question. So my educational background is architecture and urban planning. I've always been really interested in commercial environments because what I find is that's where everyone interacts, right? Like, you and I could be next to each other in the grocery store or sit next to each other in a bar and have the same conversation, hopefully. And so from that, it was just like, how can we amplify that opportunity for neighborhoods and communities in recognizing the value that a lot of the small businesses actually have in that equation? When I think about that value, I think about the neighborhoods that oftentimes are overlooked by the national brands, the ones who say, hey, we have this very formulaic like site selection process. Applebee's, we only opened up 26 locations in 2022. That's not a real stat, but thinking about it from a pure quantitative standpoint, and neighborhood oriented businesses, businesses that are grown organically from residents of a community, they are much more like, hey, I can afford the space. The space is large enough, and it's near who my customers will be, right? And so, all right, well, let me think about how to serve them and then create this organic neighborhood.
[00:02:12.480] - Bobby Boone
One of the business owners I work with in Maryland, she was saying, hey, when I first started my business, I thought it was my business, right? But actually it's the community's business, and that's so real. And you think about, like, hey, I can't be successful without a community around me that's truly supporting the vision of growth, vision of equity for my community that is entrenched and so impassioned, and it's also doing what they love. And so figuring out, how do we get to that solution? How do we get to solutions that are truly rooted in I'm doing something for the people around me while doing something that also serves me.
[00:03:09.200] - Roberta Rewers
I think that makes a lot of sense because being in Philadelphia for MPC 23, what I personally loved was the smaller businesses. It wasn't the traditional chains. I got to try a really cool local bagel shop, and I was like, oh, my gosh, this is so great. And I'm like, Why can't we have one of these back home? So even as a visitor, you get that sense of community and the vibes and the differences, and it's not standard monotony.
[00:03:33.810] - Bobby Boone
[00:03:34.870] - Roberta Rewers
So why do you do what you do, then? Because this sounds like really hard work.
[00:03:42.230] - Bobby Boone
The work itself is personally rejuvenating the operations of having a small business is the hard part, honestly. However, when I think about why I do what I do so I grew up in Atlanta where it was a community that I'm African American, male, and it's a community that is largely African American. My pediatrician was black. The Jamaican shop owner, of course, was black, and that my dad and I went to at least once a week because he loves jerk chicken and he still does. And thinking about going downtown, you saw a lot of black people. It was just so entrenched with blackness and black business at every single scale. And when I think about community serving businesses for me personally was how I was initially introduced to what my whole life could be. And so I think about it as like self actualization. It's like as a youth, you see a business owner like they're doing something I really love to do. I can do that or I can do that or I can do that. And so for me, it goes back to how do we give people opportunities to chase their dreams and see that it's real?
[00:05:15.990] - Bobby Boone
And so translating that over to the built environment and planning, it's like, all right, in order to do that, you need the right policies behind it. You need the right educational opportunities. You need also households with discretionary income so that they could actually shop at the businesses. You need the physical development opportunities, like adequate space in place. So it's like you need facade improvement programs and roof repair and from a lot of these chronically disinvested assets too. And so it's just like, why I do what I do is because I recognize that it's not a one size fit all puzzle piece of solving for getting to that self actualization for the youth. You need to have all of these things, from financing to planning to development to entrepreneur ecosystem or business support services, et cetera, in place in order to move that strategy forward. And so I am really driven by figuring out all those pieces and learning from all those pieces in order to move the planning profession forward, in order to move the neighborhoods we serve for.
[00:06:32.990] - Roberta Rewers
It does not sound like easy work at all. What do you see as some of the obstacles that planners have to face in helping small businesses, smaller community businesses, overcome displacement issues?
[00:06:46.100] - Bobby Boone
It's a tall order, not easy, right? So, I mean, I think it's one mind shift mindset, right? It is shifting from a pull yourself up from the bootstraps or the information is online in some cryptic language perspective to one that is rooted in empathy, one that is rooted in how could I truly use the power that I have as a planner in order to serve the people on the other side? And so when you get to the technical aspects of that, it is, hey, we are largely working on land use, and those land use controls, the land use approvals, all of the things. And so understanding one, what is inhibiting small businesses from operating, what's inhibiting more so culturally specific small businesses from operating, and how do you move those barriers or move or remove those barriers to enable that behavior? So one thing I thought about, which is I worked in Fort Worth, Indiana in 2019, and then there's a large Burmese population there. And one of the things that we noted in our research and some of the clients team told us about was, hey, they're having livestock in their backyard, or they're growing things that typically isn't allowed to be grown at the scale in their backyards.
[00:08:46.580] - Bobby Boone
And it's just like, well, neighbors are complaining. And I was like, well, you know, you have a large immigrant population here that has culturally specific needs about how they live, and you are more so forcing them to adopt a Westernized culture of how I need to do that, instead of saying, hey, you can do that in these parameters, right? And so maybe we have a few plots that are available for the storage of livestock. Maybe you could have up to five chickens in your backyard. And so it's just like really figuring out strategies that supports that behavior and then moving it into the retail context. It's like, hey, what does that look like in tandem, right? You talk about a lot in retail, about experiential retail and shopping. And that's like a whole trend and driving a lot of what's occurring in most major brands. And when you think about experiential, you think about like, oh, this is something I would come back to yesterday. I was in Chinatown, went to a hot pot restaurant, and we had our boiling panels, like, oh, you just go up and pick all of the skewers that you want to dip in the hot pot, and you don't order it, and we bring it to you.
[00:10:11.620] - Bobby Boone
That's a part of the experience, right? And it was in these beautiful refrigerators, and it was just like, wow, I would come back here with my daughter because it's such a very interesting and different cultural dining experience. And so being able to be very specific in how cultures can show up is a big part of that answer.
[00:10:39.700] - Roberta Rewers
It makes sense because then we're not all the same. We get to experience different opportunities. You talk a little bit about inhibiting operations and businesses and stuff. Can you give a few examples of some of that? You did a little bit with community culture, having livestock in their backyards. What are some other examples that you come across?
[00:11:01.010] - Bobby Boone
One of the things I think about with African American or black people in general, they historically have had to smoke meats, and the smoking is a preservation technique, right? And so in order to do that, you need space and great ventilation historically you don't have a lot of space and ventilation in urban centers. But now in modern age, there's so much technology in terms of the building that can remove all of that smoke and exhaust that into above the building, elsewhere, et cetera. I find that sometimes the code is slow to pick up on the technology that is available. And so figuring out strategies in really which you could say, hey, we know this preparation technique is important to your culture and we're enabling it through legislation. That's one. I will also think about the sizes of space requirements some municipalities have like, hey, you must have 25 seats to be considered a restaurant. That limits the ability for somebody that seems like, hey, I know I make bomb empanadas and I only need 250 make bomb empanadas and I want to sell them my front door or I want to have a bar of eight stools in pickup register in order to facilitate that business.
[00:12:50.020] - Bobby Boone
And so how do we ensure that our space size limitations, the parking requirements that come along with that are removed? How do we promote smaller spaces in terms of actually identifying, say, hey, we're having a zoning code for 500 sqft. So when developers and their architects, et cetera, are designing the buildings, they're saying, oh, if we do this, we can limit how much parking we have to have and then it's a financial value for them then. So if we're like, oh, we're going to put 300 500 square foot bays in our building in order to support it's not supporting small business from their perspective sometimes, but it is supporting that small business that will occupy that space because we're only in commercial real estate, you charge per square foot. And so it comes down to really figuring out creative solutions that aligns with financial interests which aligns with cultural interest and community needs.
[00:14:07.710] - Roberta Rewers
Not a challenge at all.
[00:14:09.180] - Bobby Boone
Not at all.
[00:14:12.370] - Roberta Rewers
Speaking of challenges, you've spoken one of them for small businesses is not having readily available data, especially for minority owned or minority serving districts. How do we remedy that gap in getting the data? Or what do we do if we you can't go to a web page and find the data set that you need. How do we move forward?
[00:14:36.440] - Bobby Boone
So I'm going to say big dream. And then in practice, big dream is federal government starts to really shine light on those specific data points, right from your taxes. If you're single member, LLC or corporation, you have data on employees, all that stuff, mostly financial, right, that you can find through the census, the annual business survey, which was 2017, which is like the most rich just data set, but in terms of ethnicity and things. But that is largely a hard kind of data set to access in terms of just the lay person on the street and figuring out who's in their community. And it's outdated because it's 2017. But it's like as we're moving into the future. If the federal government was really able to say, hey, in your taxes every year, how do you identify what are your NAICS codes and be able to share that information? With municipalities or share that information with community organizations or share their information with other community minded organizations who are trying to do the work that is serving the specific populations there. And so that's one solution, which is pie in the sky dreams right now. But at the municipal level or as a planner level, it's like, one of the things I've really loved is the new York city storefront registry.
[00:16:22.410] - Bobby Boone
And so New york city has recognized, hey, commercial rents are all over the place, right? And many of them note it as too high, specifically within some of the more dense manhattan neighborhoods. And so thinking about how do you understand how to put in a rent control ordinance, you don't have that conversation easily without having the data to support it. And so what they recognize is, hey, commercial leases aren't regulated, so they aren't standardized. You'll have different rent terms in terms of triple net or gross or single nets, all these things that very technical, very jargony, doesn't mean the same thing when you actually look at the dollar value. But now we need to start diving into the why. What I learned yesterday also was, hey, they did that. The first rung of data was amazing. And then developers and property owners realized, oh, this could really dampen kind of what we could charge long term, right? And so they pulled back on their transparency in actually the provision of data. And so it's a great tool in terms of, like, hey, all properties with ground floor, second story retail have to put into this registry, but it's only as good as the people who are providing the data.
[00:18:06.200] - Bobby Boone
So figuring out innovative ways to collect data is one. One of the things I really think about is we have a lot of AI technology that's starting to be developed. It's like, how do we leverage that in tandem with google maps to really look, say, hey, what's the building condition? Scraping google to understand the point data of each business location, are they temporarily closed, permanently closed, triangulating that data with yelp, all of these things. So I think it's a technology tool that should exist somewhere and to be able to really monitor this information over time.
[00:18:46.650] - Roberta Rewers
In your session at MPC 23, you were talking about an antidisplacement dashboard for community organizations. Can you talk a little bit more about the dashboard?
[00:18:56.350] - Bobby Boone
Of course. So, two things. I started internal project based from my Robert Johnson fellowship with the culture of health leaders. And so they gave some seed funding to start a strategic initiative. I entitled it in place. And the whole purpose of In Place is really to figure out what's a new financial tool for commercial property stabilization and long term occupancy of the businesses who have historically served this community but are at risk because the neighborhood is gentrifying in terms of new residents moving in, additional development occurring nearby, property values increasing, therefore rent rates increasing. And so with that, we launched a few research tactics. One which is available currently is the survey data. And so that data dashboard really looks at, hey, how can we complement this conversation that we have around access to capital for businesses with what are the true challenges of storefront businesses? How are neighborhood changes impacting profitability of those businesses? What are their actual rent rates for those who own? Where are their mortgage rates? How do they compare? Where is the interest of ownership? And so are people actually interested in owning their commercial property as a business owner or not?
[00:20:44.820] - Bobby Boone
How does that segment cross different racial makeups and compositions of the ownership profiles, et cetera? So it's a lot of data around those things. And that data is live and available on our website. And you can actually request the raw data from us because we're only trying to provide that information similar to this developer conversation we just had, right? Hey, developers realize it might be not in our interest to have this data. For me, it's like maybe if you're a developer, I might not want to give you this information because I don't necessarily want you to make decisions that are just based upon true return on investment. In a financial standpoint, you can request it. So all planners who are listening, hopefully we'll do that. And then we're transitioning to the second point is this displacement risk dashboard. And so this is looking specifically at neighborhood indicators that is talking about change both on the leading side and the lagging. So leading is like, hey, how is the population of the neighborhood changing? How many sales transactions have occurred? Also looking at are there parcels that have been acquired by a corporation, a developer likely, that are large recently, or where is their consolidated ownership and how can we understand that relationship to the businesses that are there?
[00:22:28.110] - Bobby Boone
And so that has taken way longer than I expected it to for many reasons, but largely it's because I want to be very intentional about the methodology. Two is if you ever try to get additional philanthropic funds, it sometimes take a really long time. So thinking about really being able to do the work well and also run a consulting practice, we're at that nexus right now. And so I am working with University of Maryland's national center of Smart Growth on the Purple line that is looking at how can we do this at a very granular approach. And so I'm looking forward to taking that methodology that we've developed at the national scale and pulling it down. And so we'll have something that's replicable for a lot of communities across the nation.
[00:23:19.880] - Roberta Rewers
Purple line for DC Metro.
[00:23:22.490] - Bobby Boone
[00:23:23.300] - Roberta Rewers
So take us to DC metro Maryland. What's going on there?
[00:23:28.370] - Bobby Boone
Okay, so it's a lot of things going on, but I'll talk a little bit more specifically about the Purple Line. So DC. Metro in Maryland is primarily composed of Montgomery and Prince George's County. And those two counties are a Yang and Yang. In many instances, Prince George's County has historically been the most or one of the most more modern ages, affluent African American counties in the nation, where Montgomery County is home to a lot of BioMed industries, as well as others that have been supporting other industries, but specifically housing NIH and Walter Reed and all of those things. And so when you think about the Purple Line, the goal there is connecting my own words, connecting the two communities. Right. It's this arch that's going between a few of the rail lines in the existing metro rail system, which the Red, I think, the Orange Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton. And so with that, it's cutting through many commercial corridors. These commercial corridors have historically been suburban without access to rail, and so not as much transit oriented development that has really been promoted and occurring within the DC. Metro area over the last, I would say, 20 years.
[00:25:11.570] - Bobby Boone
And now they have that development pressure. Right. It's like, oh, there's a new rail line coming in. And these communities are a lot of them are minority across various different segments, and some of them are lower income. And so figuring out really strategies to support those communities who have these very vibrant business environments. One of the businesses I talked about earlier that I was supporting, talking about, hey, the community is like a business for my community and not for me. She's on this line. Right. It really is a neighborhood where we're just trying to figure out how to put in the supports now before the line is completed, before new development happens into place in order to really support those businesses. And so largely from my perspective, it is an opportunity really to drive the conversation around what's the role of public investment in terms of transportation that typically happens in communities and then spurs redevelopment right after that and then puts many communities at risk? And how do you navigate that trajectory in a way that when you look at those risk factors, it's like they're actually being able to be mitigated for.
[00:26:48.850] - Roberta Rewers
Before we lose the business?
[00:26:50.530] - Bobby Boone
[00:26:51.300] - Roberta Rewers
Makes sense. And access is working with Suite Auburn works. We're going to transition down back to Atlanta. We kind of started in Atlanta. We'll come back to Atlanta to launch a retail incubator program. Talk to me about the program. What's the foundation of it? What's the goal? Have you come across any like, oh, we didn't expect to see that come up.
[00:27:12.090] - Bobby Boone
So the program is intended to make experience design interventions for businesses occupying the ground level. And those businesses are primarily retail operators who have historically served the community or some of them are new. And Sweet Auburn just give you a little bit of geographic context. Is the home of Martin Luther King Jr. Is where the site lives. The National Park Site lives. It's home to a lot of amazing black owned restaurants. It's pinched between downtown Atlanta's primarily Georgia State campus and the Atlanta Belt line. So it's a lot of pressure, right? And like, Georgia State is acquiring more land. The Belt Line is generating a lot of economic activity in terms of new development. And so they're trying to figure out how do we position our businesses for success given all of this change that's happening around us, not to note that it's also bisected by the interstate. So we understand that in terms of environmental racism. And so really understanding, hey, how are we looking at this place in these businesses in terms in positioning them for those growth opportunities? What I've learned from this process is one, go slow. And I really appreciate the intentionality of the organization in proceeding that way of how do we get it right?
[00:28:53.710] - Bobby Boone
How do we not just throw all the money at it and don't have enough capacity to really facilitate the program? Don't do it really well, don't connect with the proper experts, et cetera. Because the difference between three months and a year is not necessarily a big gap because this program is operated on, like, a quarterly basis. Right? So they support three businesses at a time each quarter. And so how do you do that? Well, and then what they've done to facilitate is actually a partnership with Savannah College of Art and Design, which has an Atlanta campus. It's one of the nationally renowned design actually internationally renowned design schools. And they do really good work. And so these students are working with the businesses hand in hand to understand how can we actually give them a solution that they can deploy, how do we refine those solutions? So that's what we're doing in this coming quarter of, like, from that first cohort, how do we go back to those business like, hey, what were you able to implement? What didn't work well? How do we use that learning to redesign the program as we're moving forward?
[00:30:12.290] - Bobby Boone
And so it's this iterative process that I think most programs don't even think about and integrate that I'm very happy Luano from the executive director of Sweet Auburn Works had the foresight to do. And so we've been working in tandem with them to help stand that program up of like, what's the infrastructure needed in terms of the application? What questions do we need to be asking? How do we start to segment these business? Are they at the growth stage? Are they at the scaling stage? Are they at startup stage? Are they at the pivot stage? Are they at the, hey, maybe I shouldn't be operating this business stage? And so being able to really assign some of those characteristics to them in the fact that really supports kind of their vision and what they are choosing to do as their business is growing.
[00:31:03.410] - Roberta Rewers
I could talk to you all day, but I know we have time limits. So we'll end on this question. What would be your last piece of advice for planners out there? What should they walk away with and kind of keep in mind when it comes to displacement because it's happening all over the country. Unfortunately, yes.
[00:31:22.570] - Bobby Boone
So a few things I'm going to say. The first thing is promote choice, right? It is not your business, it is not your money, it is not your families that are at risk, it's theirs. And so when you think about equity, really think about what talk to your neighborhood, those business owners, about what will be best for them, then help facilitate it. Next is advocate for what that looks like in written form and documentation. Like, hey, we're doing small area plans, we're doing et cetera. And then also talking to elected officials like, hey, do you actually realize what they want? Because a lot of times that communication gap is so wide, right, of like where that's, you know, comfortability from business owners talking to elected officials or governmental representatives, it's just like being able to be that communicator. And then I think it's this also connection between this development community and the occupants, whether that's residents or the business owners that are occupying these buildings, is really being able to know yourself why these decisions are being made. So studying development, finance, studying the actual approvals processes, et cetera, in order to really drive that conversation forward from a landscape of I need to make sure they understand why they being the residents or the business owners, why these decisions are being made in terms of the industry of real estate.
[00:33:30.390] - Bobby Boone
And so that translation piece I think, is oftentimes missing in terms of the profession. We're very altruistic, we're very much so, like community deserves what they deserve and want, et cetera, without necessarily having all the tools to communicate why or why not.
[00:33:49.370] - Roberta Rewers
Fantastic. Well, Bobby, thank you so much for your time and sharing some of your insights with us today. We really appreciate it.
[00:33:55.120] - Bobby Boone
Thank you for having me.
[00:33:57.290] - Roberta Rewers
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