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Plan employs profit motive to unite city

They've heard the promises. Now people interested in growing new businesses in St. Petersburg's African-American community have a chance to hear and speak on some specific plans for making it happen.

A town hall meeting about the city's new "Business Development Collaborative" will take place between 6 and 8 p.m. today at the Enoch Davis Center at 1111 18th Ave. S.

The collaborative is a three-month-old effort involving city and federal officials, bankers, business owners and black community activists. Its primary aim is to unite the city through economic growth.

"I think the most important thing is this whole concept of economic interdependency," said Doug Tuthill, a staff member of the federal interagency task force who helped develop the plan. "We're looking for long-term community change. We know that's not going to happen unless people's interests are tied together."

By linking new black businesses with white businesses that exist in and around St. Petersburg, black people will have more opportunity "to share in the prosperity of this city," said Omali Yeshitela, a member of the federal task force's community advisory committee and another architect of the plan.

About 70 people showed up for the collaborative's first meeting in August. About 200 came to a "mixer" of black entrepreneurs and economic development officials several weeks later.

Tonight's meeting is the first chance for members of the public to comment on specific plans that a 12-person steering committee has been working on since then.

The committee is suggesting three main strategies.

The first is to focus on several main areas of economic growth, such as health care, electronics and tourism. The collaborative will then encourage small businesses that can feed into that growth.

The second strategy is to form partnerships and joint ventures between established businesses and start-up businesses owned by African-Americans.

The third is to open a one-stop business development center where small entrepreneurs can get strategic-planning information, loans and technical help in writing businesses plans and qualifying for credit.

Yeshitela and Tuthill stress that they are not talking about welfare or another anti-poverty program. They want to set up a cooperative business atmosphere between white and black people where everyone can profit.

"This is not a handout," said Tuthill. "This is not people helping people because they're altruistic. This is people helping people because it's going to make them some money. That's the only way it's going to work."

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