Samantha Oshin sat pensively inside MacArthur’s Restaurant, 5412 W. Madison St., one morning in January. Oshin, who owns a daycare in Austin located in the 29th Ward, was trying to think of the last time the ward’s alderman, Chris Taliaferro, had visited her business. 

“I have not seen him since I opened my business,” said Oshin, 36. “But guess what they did? They sent a flyer, ‘Come and help celebrate Taliaferro for reelection.’ Do you think I’m going? No.” 

Oshin was among at least a half-dozen black Austin entrepreneurs who agreed to be interviewed about their struggles trying to start their own businesses in the community where they live — concerns they’d like incumbent aldermen and their challengers to address before the Feb. 26 election. 

Many of those entrepreneurs described a community where access to capital for homegrown businesses is hard to find; where there’s a dearth of information about resources that may benefit them; and where entrepreneurs and residents alike rarely, if ever, actually see their aldermen, anywhere — let alone patronizing local shops. 

An alderman’s physical presence factored heavily into how residents interviewed perceived the incumbent. A single positive interaction with an alderman is sometimes all it takes for a constituent to express satisfaction in his or her job performance. 

“I live in Ald. Emma Mitts’ ward [the 37th],” Oshin said. “She’s great. When I opened my business, she was one of the only aldermen to say, ‘This is what you’ll need. These are the steps.'” 

Patty Ringo, a 53-year-old Austin resident who started her own catering company with the help of her church, was thankful to Taliaferro’s office for helping her recuperate money from the city for home repair. Ringo said that the alderman’s intervention saved her $5,000 — money that she could put to growing her business. 

Ringo’s experience, however, is the exception to the rule, said Nakia Green. 

“I went through an entrepreneur training program with Bethel New Life [a West Side nonprofit], but I stumbled upon that by Googling ‘business incubators,’ not by talking with my alderman,” said Green, 35. “There’s a disconnect between aldermen and businesses.” 

Crystal Dyer, 63, opened Austin’s only black-owned travel agency more than two years ago. She said that, in addition to not having much of a relationship with their aldermen, many small business owners in Austin don’t have a way of directly communicating with City Hall. 

“The city needs to open a hub where they can make sure that information is being passed along to citizens who are interested in opening a business,” Dyer said. “I talked to a young man who opened a restaurant who didn’t even know anything about any city grants or anything. He opened that with his own money.” 

What resources do exist for small, black-owned businesses in Austin are woefully inadequate, she said, before pointing out the city’s vaunted Neighborhood Opportunity Fund program as a case study. 

The program gives money to new, minority-owned businesses to help pay for costs related to capital projects, including architectural and engineering fees, minor site improvements and financing fees related to securing loans. 

Last year, at least five small, minority-owned businesses in Austin received the funding. Stephanie Hart, the owner of Brown Sugar Bakery in Austin, told AustinTalks in September that the grant money helped her open her third location. 

Although the program has had a degree of success, Dyer and business owner Malcolm Crawford said that they know small businesses that win city grant money still struggle to get loans from banks.

“The whole objective is to get people who never had the opportunity an opportunity to grow,” said Crawford, who is also executive director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association. “But the banks are coming in to say, ‘Hey I need your firstborn’s DNA type.” 

The lack of credit — not only to pay for startup fees but simply for reserves — hits business owners like Oshin particularly hard. 

Oshin relies heavily on state funding for childcare expenses of low-income mothers. She said that she often has to wait months for the state to pay out. She often feels perilously close to having to close her business. To help offset her overhead costs she drives for Uber — an idea she credited to Mitts. 

Candidate Responses

Mayoral Candidates 

Toni Preckwinkle: Overhaul the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant program so that small businesses can more easily secure the funds. Pay contractors working on capital improvements for small business owners in real time instead of as reimbursements.

Susana Mendoza: Change state law to make it legal to utilize TIF funds outside of TIF districts. Implement the $100 million Catalyst Fund designed to support small businesses: “Allowing access to capital is key.” Incentivize developers who partner with, and train, minority contractors: “I want to see [minority and women-owned] sub-contractors rise to the next level and become prime contractors.”

Willie Wilson*: Support community-based grants to create small businesses.

Amara Enyia*: Invest in career and technical education training programs. 

La Shawn K. Ford: Develop a long-term plan for the West Side to attract investors. Government must set a foundation for businesses to want to invest

Gery Chico: Upgrade Neighborhood Opportunity Fund to make more investments in minority neighborhoods. Expand Retail Thrive Zones program. Partner with Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) on community development support, and implement recommendations in Austin Quality of Life Plan.

Bill Daley: Use TIF funding to bring development to neighborhoods on West Side. 

Paul Vallas: Embrace Trump tax bills for major capital gains. Support businesses willing to train and hire people. Use developer fee money to rebuild community infrastructure. 

28th Ward Candidates 

Miguel Bautista: Build stronger chambers of commerce that map out resources and community needs. Wipe records of people affected by marijuana-related charges and give people of color the opportunity to license and sell the drug. 

Jason Ervin: Expand existing businesses. 

Jasmine Jackson: Supports small businesses and community benefits agreements if larger corporations come in. “The stakeholders, the families — their needs have to be addressed first.”

Beverly Miles: Build a stronger chamber and partner with more businesses.

Justina Winfrey: New developers should make 50 percent of their employees Austin residents and create workforce training programs. 

29th Ward Candidates 

Chris Taliaferro: Support the Retail Thrive Zones program. Secure grants for black businesses through AAABNA. Get Austin one of the first electric bus routes in the city. Support creative programs like the pop-up retail shop on Chicago Avenue to help businesses learn how to grow into brick-and-mortar stores. Encourage constituents to apply for city grants, particularly Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grants. 

Zerlina Smith: Promote co-ops, so people feel invested in the businesses. If the community works with the businesses, then they will succeed. 

Dwayne Truss: Ensure that black people are included in the burgeoning cannabis industry. Focus on vocational training in order to give entrepreneurs more opportunities to provide services that people need, instead of looking for outside development. 

37th Ward Candidates 

Emma Mitts*: Advocated for initiatives “designed to help support and expand small businesses”: expansion of pop-up shops, food trucks and industrial retail thrive zones. Promote Neighborhood Opportunity Fund and the Small Business Improvement Fund grants. Established 37th Ward Business Advisory Council.

Tara Stamps: Consider creating small business hubs subsidized by the city to help entrepreneurs. “We have to restructure the design” of some city programs like the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund program to meet business owners’ needs.

Deondre Rutues: Neighborhood Opportunity Funds grant program should be paid to directly to contractors working on capital improvements for small businesses and not as reimbursements. Push for a black-owned credit union in the 37th Ward. Attract cooperatively owned grocery stores and marijuana dispensaries to the ward. 

*Indicates candidate did not respond to multiple requests for interview and responses are pulled from public comments.

This report was produced in collaboration with City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab.