MUSKEGON — Generating greater diversity within the business community and bringing a new source of capital and networking opportunities to business owners are the goals behind a unique partnership launched in Muskegon.
The arrangement between the Urban League of Greater Muskegon and the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce is designed to “foster and encourage racially/ethnically diverse business developments in the Muskegon area, and build bridges from small and family-owned businesses to the area’s larger corporations,” states the memorandum of understanding the organizations signed March 14.
The partnership brings the resources of both organizations together to work on economic development initiatives that are geared toward providing economic opportunity for all, particularly those who are disadvantaged.
“It was an opportunity that we saw both organizations could benefit from and provide great opportunity to the community,” said Rodney Brown, president of the Urban League of Greater Muskegon. “Now all we have to do is make it a success.”
Under the partnership, the Urban League and the chamber will work to create a social and business network that brings together the “established business community” and “racially/ethnically diverse business owners” in the area, as well as form a micro-loan program administered by the Urban League to help start-up businesses secure capital.
The two also will establish a program to use the Urban League to help companies recruit minorities to executive and management positions at companies in the Muskegon area and continue to explore additional opportunities for collaboration on economic development activities.
The 1,200-member Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce has wanted to reach out further to the minority business community with economic development assistance for some time, but has never been able to get far because it lacked the right contacts, President Cindy Larsen said. That connection came last August when Brown became president of the Urban League’s 1,000-member local chapter and saw the potential for collaborating with the chamber on common goals.
“It was such a natural partnership,” Larsen said. “It’s all about relationships and the Urban League has the relationships, so this is accelerating that process.”
The chamber and the Urban League are just beginning the process of researching their options for the loan program, Larsen said. The intent right now is to identify what’s available and what’s not, she said.
“We need to find out what is already on the market and find out where there is a void and how to address that void,” Larsen said.
Muskegon County’s population is predominately white, with 13 percent African American and 2.2 percent Hispanic, according to the 2000 Census. Fifteen percent of the chamber’s membership are considered minority-owned businesses, with eight out of 10 of those businesses owned by women and the rest ethnic minorities.
As the community becomes more diverse in the future, the chamber needs to undertake initiatives to ensure it’s reaching out to all and reflects its community, Larsen said.
“This is one more step to position Muskegon for the new economy,” she said.
The focus now is also to take the initiative out to businesses and would-be entrepreneurs and convince them to take advantage of it, Brown said. He hopes that early success stories will bring increased participation and support for the initiative.
“As we get some wins and we get more successes, then we’ll get more support,” Brown said.