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In East Tampa, pandemic relief merges with small business development

Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan CEO Derrick Blue talks about assisting minority entrepreneurs in a time of crisis.
Portrait of Derrick Blue, CEO of the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan, on site, at the co-working and collaboration exchange space, Monday, March 8, 2021 in Tampa.
Portrait of Derrick Blue, CEO of the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan, on site, at the co-working and collaboration exchange space, Monday, March 8, 2021 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Mar. 10
Updated Mar. 10

At a time when many small businesses are struggling to survive, Derrick Blue has seen a few blossom.

“During the pandemic, we actually moved in about five new businesses,” said Blue, the CEO of the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan, an East Tampa nonprofit that combats economic and societal disparity. “What it demonstrated was the resilience of people here in Tampa. There were companies that moved in and started PPE companies. We have a mask company in the warehouse that’ll be producing nearly a million masks per month, all made in America.”

Since Blue took over the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan in 2017, the organization has broadened its focus beyond housing relief and assistance for those with HIV and AIDS, placing more emphasis on “economic development through entrepreneurship,” he said. That includes a small business incubator at the group’s headquarters, a former warehouse on N 50th Street; events like 2019′s Black Wall Street business expo; and advice on securing federal and local pandemic aid.

In January, the group received a grant from the city of Tampa to help fund a new program called the 5508 Business Accelerator, designed to give small businesses tips on securing capital, implementing technology and branding and launching new products. Applications are open through March at thapgroup.org.

A year into the coronavirus pandemic, we asked Blue, 42, about the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan’s evolving mission, and whether relief for minority-owned businesses has been adequate. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Are your organization’s overarching goals the same as they were before the pandemic?

I would say the goals are pretty much the same, with a strong emphasis on being able to thrive in the midst of uncertainty. For instance, we recognized that a lot of businesses did not have technology, so we shifted to support them in that means. Also, a lot of companies couldn’t receive federal funding, because while they were in business, they didn’t have adequate financials. So the vision is the same; however, we just put an emphasis on preparation and resiliency over the next three years.

Have you seen businesses coming to you looking for advice on how to weather this storm, or people who see an opportunity and want to do something different?

We see a combination of both. Several times a day, somebody’s calling me for advice, calling me for access. We’re partnering with a regional bank to have people learn about PPP funding, and what needs to be in place to do that. But then you have people who said, “I’m having a lot of uncertainties about my 9-to-5, and I want to have something for myself that I can build.”

Portrait of Derrick Blue, CEO of the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan, on site, at the co-working and collaboration exchange space, Monday, March 8, 2021 in Tampa.
Portrait of Derrick Blue, CEO of the Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan, on site, at the co-working and collaboration exchange space, Monday, March 8, 2021 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

When they announced the second round of Paycheck Protection Program loans in January, there was a period in the beginning designed to prioritize community lenders. Have you found that any of the programs designed to aid minority and economically disadvantaged communities actually did what they set out to do?

Yes and no. A lot of people had their hearts in the right place. But anytime the federal government floods money down, a lot of people are apprehensive and may or may not know exactly what to do. What I do appreciate is the effort that a lot of local organizations have done to push information. But what I noticed at one point — and I think it’s gotten a lot clearer — is that each financial institution has their own systems and risk management procedures in place. There were some people who were able to get it, while others didn’t. Some banks have done it very well, and some haven’t.

Do you think the dissemination of aid has become more equitable over the course of the pandemic? What could be done to make it more equitable?

I think it has become much more equitable than it’s been historically. The best way for any type of equity is, people need to speak up, people need to get information out, and the right people need to be in the right places. We’ll probably see much much more social equity under this administration. At least that’s my prayer.

I have to think that when there’s more federal funding going into a specific health crisis, those who have been battling other long-term health crises, like HIV/AIDS, might feel like they’re being left behind. Have you found that to be the case?

You hit it right on the head. When the world is sneezing, people who live with HIV have pneumonia. There are individuals who feel they’re not only being left behind now, but they’ve always been left behind. We need to be able to say, “We need to do more than give you gift cards and say thank you and use your story. We want to empower you to start a company, see what we can do to aid you and connect you to what you need.”

Once we get past the pandemic, is there a road map toward sustainable, long-term, economic growth in East Tampa? What’s the down-the-road vision?

The city, the county, the state needs to incentivize development in a radical way. There has to be a holistic approach to economic development that says, “This is not just about money. This is about the quality of businesses that are actually in East Tampa.” Not just factories, not just industrial. You have a company that comes in and says, “Okay, I’m going to put a store here, and I know it’s tough, and I know it’s a lot of stuff we have to look at.” But then another store says, “You know what, if they did it, I can do it.” What you start finding then is, the level of housing starts coming up. It’s a holistic plan. It’s little pieces that have to be connected. It’s a big question. But it’s possible.