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Main Spotlight: Supporting Black-Owned Businesses in Biddeford, Maine

August 11, 2021 | Main Spotlight: Supporting Black-Owned Businesses in Biddeford, Maine | By: Delilah Poupore, Executive Director, Heart of Biddeford | 
Photo courtesy of Heart of Biddeford
In March of 2020, Carmen Harris, one of the owners of Magnus on Water in Biddeford, Maine, was the first person to ask me what changes Heart of Biddeford was making to respond to the burgeoning pandemic. As a restaurant owner and a community member, she was concerned that our Restaurant Week events could spread this new disease. She also had a hunch that COVID would affect people who were already under-resourced even more harshly than people who had plenty of resources. As an epidemiologist, this was a trend she was used to tracking.

COVID as an Equity Issue

Carmen brought to light that COVID was not just a health or economic issue, but also an equity issue. Research from the COVID Tracking Project shows Black people had a much higher rate of cases and hospitalizations nationally than white people. In Maine, our state had the worst racial disparity in COVID cases in the country.

Issues of equity were also apparent in the impact of the pandemic on Black-owned businesses. In the Heart of Biddeford Main Street district, seven Black-owned businesses have opened in the past four years, and over half were dramatically affected by COVID-19: one closed completely, two closed for 4-5 months, and one had to shut down for over a month due to a COVID case. In contrast, only 10% of the remaining 70 brick-and-mortar businesses were similarly impacted, with just two closures.

In this rural, predominantly white state, these Black business owners are essential community builders, and they provide key locations for local and visiting Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) customers and visitors. We knew we needed to give dedicated support to preserve these businesses that had been disparately impacted by COVID-19.

Our Guiding Framework

Heart of Biddeford discussed how to best address these equity issues in our business district. We decided to approach this problem using Targeted Universalism, a theory that attempts to “serve groups otherwise excluded, while also promising to improve outcomes for people situated in relatively privileged positions.” For example, if you create curb cuts to make the downtown more wheelchair accessible, it will also benefit families with strollers, travelers with rolling baggage, and delivery workers with handcarts. The authors of Targeted Universalism: Policy & Practice explain that the merits of Targeted Universalism include that “the strategies developed to achieve [universal] goals are targeted, based upon how different groups are situated within structures, culture, and across geographies.”

Using Targeted Universalism as our guiding framework, we planned to achieve our universal goal of supporting every business to persist and thrive by:

  1. Creating stronger partnerships with those most severely affected by the pandemic, and
  2. Applying our approaches based on the engagement of those most negatively affected.

Applying an Equity Lens to an Economic Development Project

To achieve this, Heart of Biddeford began to enhance our partnerships with Black business owners as well as with Black Owned Maine (BOM), a community resource for Black-owned businesses and the Black community. Black Owned Maine was started in mid-2020 by two area residents who created a statewide business directory/website and a Black Business Pledge. It is the only resource of its kind in the state, serving as both a directory and a modern-day version of the Green Book, with 3,000 - 5,000 views per week.

Our first step was to create a working agreement with Black Owned Maine to help fund the redesign of this online resource. Through funding from Main Street America’s Main Street Resiliency Grant Program, Heart of Biddeford is adding financial and logistical support to their website redesign process in order to improve the site’s ease of access and navigability. We will also be highlighting Biddeford’s BOM page in our social media marketing.

In addition, Heart of Biddeford is creating print and social media campaigns to raise awareness of local Black-owned businesses and Black Owned Maine, particularly during National Black Business Month. We’ll also post new photos of the businesses and featuring them on a special page on Heart of Biddeford’s website. We expect these efforts to expand Black Owned Maine’s impact and to bring new customers to Biddeford’s existing Black-owned businesses.

The tangible outcomes listed above are important, but this has also been about building relationships for the long run. I’ve had good discussions with Rose Barboza and Jerry Edwards (aka Genius Black) at Black Owned Maine as well as with the owners of Biddeford’s Black businesses. Most started up within the past few years and they say Biddeford is a place where can bring their dreams into being. It’s been an honor to witness LaKosha’s enthusiasm as she talks about making Klassically Kute Designs a magical place for affordable children’s clothing, or to hear how Maria has applied her life lessons to building an incredibly warm and welcoming barbershop at Woodgrain Barbers. Coco from Loving Anvil has shared about her process for creating authentic art and what it means to connect with patrons. All of these businesses draw local and visiting customers, and they also provide a space in the downtown where many Black residents and visitors feel at home.

Untitled_design__84_.pngPhoto courtesy of Heart of Biddeford

Lessons Learned

Even though the project is not yet complete, I’ve learned a few things that I suspect may apply to other majority-white Main Street organizations or communities:
  • This project would not have as much impact if we were limited to working with the brick-and-mortar businesses in our Main Street district. Black Owned Maine is a key thought partner who will influence visitors to come to Biddeford’s Main Street for a long time.
  • To build a true partnership, I need to be aware of my values and assumptions. At one point, Black Owned Maine prioritized finding a Black-owned business to complete their web design. While this pushed out their timeline, centering Black entrepreneurs was essential to their values.
  • While this project falls under Heart of Biddeford’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion planning, in our polarized society strategically addressing racism can be contentious. Therefore, it has been essential to keep our board up to date on this project as well as to provide training opportunities around listening and racism.

What “Main Street is For Everyone” Might Really Mean

Through this project, we hope to show the power of authentic partnerships, where all parties bring something to the table, and where systemic racism is addressed. If successful, we believe this will be replicable in other communities, as well as serve as a model for how to apply Targeted Universalism to partner with marginalized communities to create solutions. Because there are more than 30 Black-owned businesses within the 10 Main Street programs in the state of Maine, this will also have a positive impact on all of the Main Street programs across the state.

I am looking forward to seeing how this project helps move us toward the goal of making Main Street for everyone.

At the core of Main Street America's approach to revitalization is a commitment to creating places of shared prosperity, equal access to opportunity, and inclusive engagement. You can find additional resources on how you can join us in living out this mission at Main Street America's Main Streets are for Everyone resource center.

#The Main Street Approach