“It was something I always wanted to do,” Pittman says. “The emphasis for me was being an alternative source of news that deals with real issues.”
The Courier’s readership has since spread to Chicago, St. Louis and even outside the United States, Pittman says, making his monthly minority-owned paper one success story among many during the early 2000s. New data from the U.S. Census Bureau says minority business ownership in Illinois grew by more than 45 percent from 2002 to 2007, while the number of businesses owned by African-Americans grew 55 percent over the same time period. Pittman, founder and former president of the Springfield Black Chamber of Commerce, says about 10 black-owned businesses were started in Springfield in the past 12 months.
From 2002 to 2007, statewide gross receipts for minority-owned businesses rose by almost 38 percent, a larger increase than the nearly 30 percent seen by all businesses over the same period. Although county-level data for 2007 have not yet been released, the 2002 data show 563 African-American-owned firms in Sangamon County that year. Pittman says many of those are likely work-at-home businesses started by people who need extra income in addition to their daily job.
Despite the earlier growth, Pittman says the economic recession that gripped the nation in late 2007 has meant trouble for minority businesses in Springfield. Easier access to credit initially helped spur expansion in minority-owned businesses, Pittman says, but as credit has atrophied, so has growth.
“Malcolm X used to say, ‘When White America sneezes, Black America catches a cold,’ ” Pittman says, adding that the state’s financial crisis has had a negative effect as well.
“I know some people who own small, minority-owned businesses doing work with the state,” he says. “They haven’t been paid in anywhere from six to eight months. That just kills business.”
The city’s highest concentration of African-Americans and other minorities is on the east side, which brings its own set of issues for businesses, Pittman says.
“Black businesses that want to locate on the east side of town have to deal with so many issues, in terms of trying to get funding, trying to get people to come to their location,” he says. “It makes it very, very tough. They’re still hanging in there, though.”
Pittman’s advice to minority entrepreneurs? Find a niche and give people what they want.
“People are holding onto money and they’re looking for deals,” he says. “People may be more frugal with their money, but they still need food. You can buy salvaged goods like a dented can of beans for a penny and sell it for 25 cents. Be an innovator in times such as these and you can really make some headway.”
Familiarity with the Internet is also extremely important, Pittman says.
“With technology today, you shouldn’t limit your market just to Springfield,” he says. “Your market and your vision should be global.”
Most importantly, minority entrepreneurs shouldn’t settle for less, Pittman says.
“It’s so easy to take a state job and not take the risk,” he says. “When you retire from a state job after working there 40 years, if you’re lucky, they might give you a watch and have a party for you, but when you walk out that door, that job is going to somebody else. When you retire from your own business, that business can be handed down to your children. That’s how you create wealth, which is one of the things really missing in the black community.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at email@example.com.