Level Up will help minority owned businesses and economies


The Erie County Legislature, April Baskin, recently spoke the truth when it said it: Many minority entrepreneurs just aren’t ready.

Hard truth, yes. But truth.

She spoke about the idea that local businesses like La Nova Pizza, Lloyd Taco and Rachel’s are among the lucky ones to get dining franchises at Highmark Stadium.

Baskin, an African American and Chair of the Legislature, explained in simple terms why minority companies are not getting these lucrative contracts. At least in part, it is about readiness or lack thereof.

Companies must meet capacity and certification requirements to participate in large-scale projects. It means getting from A to Z. Such knowledge is acquired like building the foundation of a house – one brick at a time.

The companies that many refer to seem to have this solid foundation and have also been fortunate to accumulate and share knowledge through generational expertise – from grandfather to son to grandchild.

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So what do you do when this intergenerational wealth gap in knowledge and resources is lacking, largely due to systemic inequalities afflicting a segment of the underrepresented population?

The new Level Up program offers an answer. The idea is to offer training to small but already established minority companies. Given the ambitious goals of the Bills Stadium Agreement, this is welcome and much-needed attention.

These goals include ensuring that 30% of the companies involved in the construction and operation of the $1.54 billion facility are women and minority-owned. But as Baskin said, if those companies aren’t eligible, that’s not worth much.

Established East Side favorites like Lee’s Barbecue, Mattie’s, and Gigi’s relied on that one critical person to run everything from the kitchen to the front of the house. When those owners died or went out of business, no successor was willing to step in.

The example cited in The News, and remembered by those who observed it, involved the son of Gigi’s late owner,Blonde Harvin. A 2019 article reported Darryl Harvin’s heartfelt appreciation that he had “some understanding of the restaurant business, but not enough to handle what was presented to me.”

“Level Up” promises training and support. The program provides training on processes and procedures, teaching aspiring entrepreneurs, for example, how to navigate the certification process for minority state enterprises. It helps business owners wade through a seemingly insurmountable amount of paperwork and bureaucracy. The hand offered through this program could be the one that saves the new business owner from drowning.

So why now? After all this time? The May 14, 2022 massacre at Tops Markets on Jefferson Avenue, which claimed the lives of ten black residents, opened the eyes of some to inequality and despair. It had been there before, clearly visible. But the killings brought together people of all colors and backgrounds who want to help create positive outcomes for the very people the shooter intended to destroy.

The Level Up pilot program will expire at the end of this year and will be replaced by a full-fledged program that will add ten new companies each year. The goal is for any company participating in the program to have the certification, experience and support needed to apply for major corporate projects, including Bills Stadium, within one to two years.

It is a goal to strive for and one that should go a long way towards bridging the entrepreneurial prosperity gap.

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