While the Black Chamber of Commerce of Western New York has long been viewed as enigmatic at best and separatist at worst, its passion and dedication to reviving the barren East Side business community are unquestionable.
With the unexpected death of the organization’s founding president Lumon Ross in January, Richard C. Cummings, the group’s longtime vice president, is now at the helm.
Cummings, an East Side businessman, plans to proceed in a similar vein with few changes.
The group will continue to hold six to seven training workshops a year, centering on computer skills, business plan writing, marketing, certification processes and other areas. It will carry on with its role as a watchdog for compliance with minority hiring mandates at area construction projects.
Its involvement with efforts to cover part of the Kensington Expressway and restore Humboldt Parkway also will continue, as well as its monitoring of the resurfacing of Fillmore Avenue.
And under Cummings’ leadership, the group also will continue to be tight-lipped about certain aspects of its operations and its membership.
Cummings, 74, had worked in a variety of fields, including marketing for various phone companies before starting his own business, American Rated Cable & Communications on East Delevan Avenue, in 1992. Tired of discriminatory practices that prevented his business from growing, Cummings, Ross and other beleaguered East Side businessmen commiserated at a library in the early 1990s and their meetings led to the eventual founding of the organization.
Cummings recently talked about the future of the Black Chamber, the challenges that black businesses face and the groups’ relationship with other area economic development groups.
Q: What’s one of the major hindrances to East Side businesses?
A: Technology. Technology is very important to be able to compete in what is now a global market. And we’re finding a lot of businesses are not up to date with technology. They don’t have a website and they don’t participate in social media. It’s not just using the Internet, but even using a computer to operate a business, doing spreadsheets, marketing. Age may be a factor – a lot of our businesses are first-generation owners. But the chamber will hold workshops this year to give them the skills, so more members can improve their businesses.
Q: How many member businesses does the chamber currently have?
A: We don’t talk about the number of members we have, and we don’t talk about who our members are. The truth of the matter is some segments of the society are not in favor of the success of black businesses and mean things are done to undermine and cause the early demise of businesses. And when you have the boldness to say that you’re part of the Black Chamber, all of sudden some of that anger is raised even higher and you become a target.
Q: People have questioned the purpose of the Black Chamber and criticized its approach. Are you aware of the group’s image?
A: It’s probably not a good image. It’s not understood why we would separate ourselves as the Black Chamber as opposed to being a part of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. But we see it as valid because we have a set of circumstances for black businesses that are not true for the partnership’s membership.
There’s discrimination that takes place with black businesses. Then they say you’re playing the race card, but we play the cards that we’ve got, and if that happens to be one of the cards, that’s how we play it.
There are just unique problems that have to be addressed. Our businesses serve the greater population. You don’t conduct business by race.
Q: Will the chamber reach out to the partnership or another economic development agency for technical assistance or resources to help East Side businesses?
A: We’re not removed from that and probably closer to that than we were last year. But I’m not sure the partnership understands the complexity of the problems, so what they would offer wouldn’t be sufficient to deal with the problems. There’s a disconnect there.
Q: What are the unique problems?
A: If you compare Fillmore and/or Jefferson to Elmwood in terms of business, you have a different level of business that’s been conducted on Elmwood. You have a more organized business association or community that defines the kinds of businesses that can go in there.
And the relationship some of the business owners on Elmwood have with the political establishment, which causes things to happen, is very good. Business owners on Jefferson and Fillmore don’t have that kind of connection. How to establish that connection is one of our challenges. But you have to recognize there is a difference.
Q: Why is the Black Chamber in favor of covering the Kensington Expressway? Why is that project so high on the group’s agenda?
A: Our desire is to do what can be done to improve the city’s East Side. When the parkway was destroyed things went downhill from there. Commercial districts became somewhat blighted. Fillmore Avenue and Jefferson Avenue really suffered.
I attribute the decline of the commercial districts to the demolition of the parkway. It had an impact almost immediately. People began to move away, businesses started closing. When I was a kid I used to see people riding horseback on Humboldt from one park to another. It was beautiful.
The value of houses on Humboldt Parkway was very similar to the value of houses on Bidwell Parkway. But when they destroyed the parkway, it took away housing value. Houses on Bidwell sell for a couple hundred thousand dollars and houses on Humboldt Parkway now go for $50,000, if you can find a buyer. It seriously impacted the economic condition and created the disparity in housing values.
Restoring the parkway would reverse conditions. We can build an economy once the infrastructure is made healthy again.