James Mack has been looking for a new location for his Epic Times Watches and Chains jewelry store for months. He believes Charlotte has a problem with bringing Black businesses into predominantly white neighborhoods.
Zoom out: Mack has sold everything from Rolex watches to diamond earrings for almost five years at the EpiCentre. Big events like the CIAA tournament and NBA All-Star Game have been a boon for the shop.
But these days, the EpiCentre is a ghost town. Foot traffic at the property has all but dried up as office workers and tourists have stayed home.
- “We need to move in a new direction. There’s no attraction here anymore,” Mack tells Axios Charlotte.
Mack’s eyeing walkable, popular areas like South End, Uptown or SouthPark, where the incomes are higher than the county average. In other words, they’re places where Mack is confident he can be successful.
Problem is, he can’t get a space in any of those neighborhoods he’s interested in. That’s despite the waves of retail closures all over that the pandemic has caused, from longstanding restaurants to local shops to national retail chains.
The state of play: Last month, SouthPark mall terminated the lease of No Grease’s Knights of the Razor barbershop. But after backlash, the mall walked back the decision. Still, the ordeal provided a window into what many Black small business owners say is their biggest challenge — finding and keeping a space.
- Mack says he’s gotten the runaround from local retail leasing representatives in several areas, including at SouthPark.
What’s more: Mack’s also been told he needs to get a celebrity or professional athlete investor. (“I feel like I’m being held to an unreasonable standard,” he says.)
“As an African American I hate to fall back on racism or discriminatory practices, but there has to be equal opportunity in business,” Mack says.
Zoom out: Locating space in the greater Uptown area is one of the biggest complaints from members of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Chamber of Commerce, says venture capitalist Dr. Shanté Williams, the group’s chairwoman.
The problem isn’t always about having the money or business structure to operate in a place like Uptown. In the last year, Williams herself, a partner and founder at Black Pearl Global Investments, has had a hard time finding office space in the city center.
- “It was really surprising to us because there is so much vacancy Uptown. We were expecting a different reception,” Williams says.
Part of what the Black Chamber does is help local businesses with matters like lending and financing. The goal is to make sure there’s no obvious reason to tell a business “no,” Williams adds. From there, the Chamber introduces member businesses to real estate partners.
Understanding who the decision-makers are in the situation is crucial, Williams says. It could be the broker, but it also could be the property owner or the developer.
“It always bothers me that there’s this perceived additional risk because you are a person of color running a business,” Williams says.
Charlotte Center City Partners, the nonprofit that promotes Uptown and South End, doesn’t track business ownership by demographic in Charlotte neighborhoods. The Charlotte Regional Business Alliance doesn’t, either.
- The lack of data makes it impossible to tell whether Black businesses are being shut out of mostly white areas, as WCNC noted.
Barry Greene, who owns Shades of Moss plant shop, decided to close his brick-and-mortar location on a second floor in Elizabeth because of overhead costs. Instead, for now he’s taking appointments and hosting workshops at different locations while he looks for a new small space.
- The search for a new spot is what inspired him to launch an initiative called Mint City Connect.
His goal: To support Black-owned businesses with consulting, lending and, importantly, finding commercial space, though events like workshops and networking with other businesses and real estate professionals.
Black-owned businesses, Greene says, shouldn’t be limited to areas like University or Pineville.
And as Greene noted during a recent discussion with Adam Williams on the Retail Redeveloped podcast, Shades of Moss was one of the only Black-owned retailers in Elizabeth.
- “That speaks volumes. The city has to find ways to give us better visibility,” Greene says.
Having a permanent location helps foster relationships with customers, Greene says. Not everything can be done virtually. That’s why micro-retail, like the kind in South End, is one option he says should be done more in Charlotte.
Charlotte should have a supportive ecosystem for Black entrepreneurs, Greene says. Greene considered moving back to his home city of Richmond, because he says it’s a place where Black-owned businesses thrive.
“Someone’s going to have to stay and fight. Someone needs to help create those opportunities that Atlanta has now, that Chicago has now,” Greene says of Charlotte.