Roundtable: Black Baton Rouge Business Owners

Four African-American businessmen from Baton Rouge, La., forecast how their local economy will be affected in the long-term following Hurricane Katrina. Guests: Richard Turnley, CEO of Southern Teachers and Parents Credit Union; Ronald Smith, owner of the Hilton Gardens and an International House of Pancakes; Clifton Avant, president of One Hundred Black Men of Baton Rouge and Microenterprise Development Alliance of Louisiana; and John Smith, the vice president of One Hundred Black Men of Baton Rouge.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's special Roundtable, NPR's Farai Chideya handles the moderating duties. She and a group of black business leaders from the Gulf region take on the issue of whether the African-American community will get a share of the billions of dollars it will take to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

We've come to the Southern Teacher & Parent Credit Union in North Baton Rouge to speak with a group of gentlemen who are part of the business community, the African-American business community, in this city. First of all, we have Richard Turnley, the CEO of Southern Teacher & Parent Credit Union; Ronald Smith, the owner of the Hilton Gardens and of an International House of Pancakes; Clifton Avant, president of 100 Black Men of Baton Rouge and MicroEnterprise Development Alliance of Louisiana; and finally, John Smith, the vice president of 100 Black Men of Baton Rouge.

Thank you for joining us.

Unidentified Man #1: Thank you.

Unidentified Man #2: Thank you.

Unidentified Man #3: Thank you.

Unidentified Man #4: It's a pleasure.

CHIDEYA: Mr. Turnley, let me start with you. You seem, from your perspective in government as well as in private business, to have a vantage point to really understand how Baton Rouge business works. What will the influx of new citizens do to business in Baton Rouge, particularly black-owned businesses?

Mr. RICHARD TURNLEY (CEO, Southern Teachers & Parents Credit Union): Well, I think it will enhance the quality of businesses that we have and allow us an opportunity, really, to help and support and individuals who have been disenfranchised in terms of their homes, their businesses and now relocating in Baton Rouge. And, of course, Baton Rouge, I think, will be better off as a result of these new citizens.

CHIDEYA: Ronald Smith, what about you? You're a business owner. Do you think that the influx from New Orleans is going to bring more competition or more of a customer base? How do you figure that equation?

Mr. RONALD SMITH (Owner, Hilton Gardens, International House of Pancakes): I think largely we are a consumer-oriented population. We will be largely inundated by consumers. So in that essence, the producers are going to benefit by the influx of people from New Orleans. So I think the consumers are going to far outweigh the producers, and therefore, it could be a windfall for the producers that are able to provide products and services for those consumers that will be moving into the area.

CHIDEYA: Tell me how you pulled together your hotel project, and what I mean by that is, what does it really take to do business here in Baton Rouge?

Mr. R. SMITH: We had to go outside of Louisiana to obtain financing for our project. The Baton Rouge market has not been very receptive to minority business owners. With the influx of minorities in this instance, I think we're going to see a change in the way the Baton Rouge market reacts to minorities as a whole.

CHIDEYA: And let me turn to you, Mr. Avant. What does your organization, 100 Black Men, do in terms of dealing with individuals who might be a member of your organization and also be prospective business owners? Do you have a networking effect where you can help people get the information they need to find financing, to start businesses? And in addition to that, how do you expect the influx of people to affect your organization?

Mr. CLIFTON AVANT (President, 100 Black Men of Baton Rouge, MicroEnterprise Development Alliance of Louisiana): Well, first of all, we set up a Web site called the Katrina Relief Fund, where you could actually donate to that organization, and with the funds we've raised--we've had corporations donate funds, and we plan to actually use the funds we have to create capital, help them get started.

CHIDEYA: And how do you reckon things are going to change here in Baton Rouge as a result of all the new citizens that are going to end up living here?

Mr. AVANT: I think it'll be great. I think the influx is going to bring different parts of diversity, different ideas from the culture. And I guess, as we've known in the past, when two cultures blend together, great things happen. I think we as a society must keep our mind open to the fact that the people that are coming are displaced residents, are--they're great people. They're going to bring great ideas and bring a lot of ideas that could help to stimulate this economy.

CHIDEYA: OK. John Smith, Ronald was talking about the fact that this has not always been the best business environment for minority-owned or black-owned businesses. How does your organization, or how should other community leaders, work to make sure that as this city expands, that African-Americans get a fair share of the growth in terms of, you know, being a part--there are a lot of Baton Rouge-based businesses working on the cleanup and recovery. I'm not sure, though, if any of those are black-owned.

Mr. JOHN SMITH (Vice President, 100 Black Men of Baton Rouge): Well, one of the things that we had already begun was a strategy that talks about building relationships. In order to be able to take advantage of things that are going on, you first of all have to have a relationship with those persons who are in control of those things. So part of what the 100 is embarking on in conjunction with energy is a program called Business Link. What it actually does is it seeks to link up-and-coming businesses with other resources. Another part of that is another project that's out there by some other persons in the 100 that talks about that building of relationships by which we will put people at a table--those persons who have access to contracts and resources, putting them at the table with the up-and-coming minority persons who are in business and who will be doing business here in the Baton Rouge community, with hopes that through these relationships we can have greater access to the things that are available.

CHIDEYA: So do you have any examples of particular triumphs of the African-American business community here? Give us more of a sense of how black folks are faring on an economic level in terms of creating their own institutions in Baton Rouge.

Mr. TURNLEY: Richard Turnley, ST&P Federal Credit Union. This organization is 68 years old. We grew from a membership of about 200. We have 8,800 members now, and we serve the underserved, although we're a university-based credit union. But we created a saving and loan association in addition to this credit union, and this is owned by black people. We're a $30 million institution, and what we've done is primarily focus our efforts on helping people help themselves. And when you own the institution, you can direct what happens and the development from that.

CHIDEYA: Let me just ask you to briefly tell us the history. Who started this, and under what circumstances?

Mr. TURNLEY: Well, you had individuals at Southern University, primarily, who were professors and administrators who knew about economic development. They were the pioneers who started this institution. At that time, blacks couldn't really go to white institutions and borrow money. They could buy a car, but not a house. And so what we decided to do is to pool our resources and that's what we did with this institution. If you look on Harding Boulevard, all of the businesses that you see, we financed those. We got monies from the federal government for economic development. They loaned us this money for 3 percent, and it's up to us to charge whatever percent of interest on those loans. And we financed those institutions.

CHIDEYA: What about challenges to the growth of black-owned businesses in the area?

Mr. R. SMITH: Ronald Smith. I'd like to address that. That's a very pertinent issue right now. As Mr. Turnley spoke briefly of a moment ago, the obstacles that have addressed minorities in the past--we were given the ability to buy a car but not a house. We've elevated from that. They do finance the houses for us now, but we need to take it a step farther, and that's where I mentioned earlier becoming producers, not consumers. Now that we have our homes, we now need to have the businesses that can in turn finance the homes or allow people to upgrade their homes. That's where I see this potential, providing we're able to rally together and all become benefactors of this.

I'm also--I didn't mention in my initial statement, I'm also one of the partners in the new International House of Pancakes, which is building on Harding Boulevard. North Baton Rouge in the past has not had major franchises to want to locate. It has become a focus that I feel minorities to now take it upon ourselves to be the individuals that bring those type of franchises into North Baton Rouge and become owners of those franchises. We will then benefit, depositing those dollars into minority institutions which, as Southern Teachers & Parents has done in the past--be able to loan those dollars back out to people that look like us and not to other states or countries. And that way, that dollar recirculates within our community, and our entire community grows.

CHIDEYA: What is the relationship between the African-American business community and the city leadership in Baton Rouge? Is there...

(Soundbite of laughing)

CHIDEYA: Uh-oh. I see and hear chuckling. Who would like to take this one on?

Unidentified Panelist: It was...

Mr. J. SMITH: John Smith. I'll answer that one.

Unidentified Panelist: John.

Mr. J. SMITH: Actually, as I was listening to both Mr. Turnley and to Ron Smith, there are some interesting dynamics that are getting ready to happen here in Baton Rouge. Southern University was originally in New Orleans, Louisiana. The state capital for a time was in New Orleans, Louisiana. Both of those are now here in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So again, the major--I think the major hub of Louisiana is going to shift from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. The current relationship here between the citizens and the government is very good. We have an African-American mayor, we have an African-American police chief. Both of them are sensitive to a balanced economy and providing economic opportunities for everyone. So the city, from an African-American standpoint--That's why we were chuckling--is in a very good posture.

The other thing that I think is a barrier but is beginning to be addressed is that businesses have all four things online, and that is a good business plan, a good financial system, a good marketing plan and access to financial support. So right now I think what we're going to see is, as we get this new influx, as the dynamics, as the culture and as the diversity changes of Baton Rouge, we're going to see those four things align themselves better such that persons can be more successful in their business ventures here in the Baton Rouge community.

CHIDEYA: Richard Turnley, the CEO of Southern Teacher & Parent Credit Union; Ronald Smith, the owner of the Hilton Gardens and of an International House of Pancakes; Clifton Avant, president of 100 Black Men of Baton Rouge and MicroEnterprise Development Alliance of Louisiana; and John Smith, the vice president of 100 Black Men of Baton Rouge. Thank you so much, gentlemen.

Mr. TURNLEY: Thank you.

Mr. R. SMITH: Thank you.

Mr. J. SMITH: Thank you.

Mr. AVANT: Thank you.

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