A year and a half in business on Troost Avenue in Midtown Kansas City, Craig H. Carlock is defying statistics and stereotypes.
Carlock opened Barbershop 67 in October 2009, too late to be counted in the U.S. Census Bureau’s quinquennial survey of small and minority-owned businesses. Released in February, the latest government data set showed that the number of black businesses in Missouri grew by 47.4% during the economic boom years from 2002 to 2007.
In fact, African-Americans in Missouri opened new businesses at more than 2.5 times the overall rate for small businesses nationally during this five-year period. In Kansas, the growth in the number of black-owned businesses also was higher than average — 26.2%.
Such stats got lost in recent media coverage of our region’s population changes as reported in the census. The 2010 census data point that made headlines at the end of February was that Kansas City, Mo.’s black population fell by a few hundred, to 137,540, over the prior decade. A week later, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that Johnson County, Kansas’s black population had more than doubled, to 23,636, over the same period.
“Black flight” crowed a headline in The Star in early March, with a “surprised” columnist concluding that our “center city continues to hollow out.”
A closer look at the new data suggests that Kansas City’s black business community is resilient and entrepreneurial in the face of relatively high costs and regulatory hurdles, especially considering that the group’s population has declined by far greater percentages in many other urban areas.
In KCMO, there were 4,672 black-owned businesses in 2007, representing 13% of the city’s business community, economic census data show. That was a higher number of black businesses than in some larger cities, including San Diego (a city three times the size of Kansas City), Las Vegas and Denver. The percentage of businesses owned by blacks in KCMO was higher than in Boston and in line with Oakland, Calif.
Most black-owned businesses in the Kansas City metro area are small, paralleling a pattern found across the country, according to the census. In fact, seven out of eight local black businesses had annual revenues of less than $50,000 in 2007, a figure that tends to indicate a high level of self-employment, sole proprietorships and “mom-and-pop” shops.
Looking at the businesses by sector four years ago, there were more black-owned businesses in health care nationwide than in any other part of the U.S. economy, followed by the broad services sector. That was true in Missouri as well, but in Kansas, there were more black-owned businesses in the services sector.
An underserved market
In setting up his shop, Carlock didn’t specifically seek an African-American clientele, but he saw an underserved market with lots of untapped potential. He said one of the biggest challenges he’s had to overcome was fear — even among family and friends, many of whom suggested he think twice about operating at 3402 Troost. That’s a block from the Armour Boulevard intersection, a KC-police-designated aggravated-assault “hotspot.”
“A lot of people talk about the need to bring more business to underserved areas. When it actually comes down to doing that, there’s hesitation, and second-guessing,” Carlock said.
Reality has proven Carlock’s skeptics wrong. He employs four barbers and says his business model worked even as a new MAX bus line was under construction along Troost last year. He also faced a few extra state regulatory burdens since he is not a barber himself. Moreover, Carlock said, he hasn’t had to call police to his shop since opening.
“Everything is going as planned,” said Carlock, whose primary occupation is computer-aided-design drafter at Taliaferro & Browne, a large KC engineering firm. “I knew going in it would be a slow process, but I’m very proud of the progress we’ve been making.”
Carlock’s inspiration for the shop was his father’s Kansas City barbershop, where he played as a child. Seeing a service vacuum a few years ago, he decided to apply his drafting skills “to create a barbershop that caters to the 21st century customer while staying true to early barbershop traditions.” The shop’s amenities include HDTV and a pool table. He’s also partnered on marketing with a nearby grocery store to help build business.
In the Midtown census tract where Carlock has his business, the black population grew in absolute terms since 2000 and became the area’s largest demographic group for the first time. This in part illustrates that, within KCMO, there’s been more of a long-term shift in where African-Americans live within the city rather than an exodus.
Lawyer-entrepreneur Sly James is an example. He may have grown up on Montgall Avenue on the East Side, but 14 years ago he moved his family from middle-income 81st and Holmes to the more affluent census tract that’s just south of Carlock’s business — Central Hyde Park.
Carlock didn’t seek any government help to get started, but the city’s Economic Development Corp. was quick to recognize his efforts. In September, Barbershop 67 earned the EDC’s annual Cornerstone Award in the small-business category. That put the Paseo Academy graduate in the same circle as Antheus Capital, which is spending more than $62 million to restore hundreds of nearby apartments on Armour Boulevard to market-rate housing.
KCMO’s city-government website suggests that only a small percentage of African-American businesses in the city bother to deal with the bureaucracy as a source of business. Only 209 minority-business enterprises (covering all ethnicities) have filed the extensive paperwork and tax disclosure needed to earn preferential status in the awarding of city-government contracts.
While much anecdotal evidence might be available well before 2014, economists and the public won’t get a definitive statistical look at how the Great Recession and 2009’s federal health-care law impacted the region’s black businesses until then. That’s when the next federal survey measuring change in the minority business community through 2012 is likely to be available.