Midtown to get business incubator in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — Tomeka Oliver sells vegan smoothies at the Saturday Morning Market in downtown St. Petersburg and the Deuces Live Market in the Midtown area on Sundays.

She dreams of opening a storefront for her business, Performance Enhancing Smoothies, but she can't afford the rent. Loans don't seem like an option for her.

"I don't try to get loans because I feel like I'm not going to qualify," said Oliver, 41. Right now, her operating expenses exceed her revenue. "I'm not even paying myself a salary yet."

Access to loans is often difficult for entrepreneurs, according to Jessica Eilerman, the small-business liaison for the city of St. Petersburg. When beginning business owners lack credit, banks deny their requests for loans.

"Businesses are not always bankable," Eilerman said. "The folks who can get the loans are the ones who don't need them."

The city of St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corp. want to help entrepreneurs like Oliver because their businesses would help expand commerce in the neighborhoods of Midtown.

A business incubator is scheduled to open in the fall at 1125 22nd St. S that would help local entrepreneurs get services they need: meeting space, mail delivery location, phone answering service, software, counseling and loans of up to $5,000.

"It was something that we kind of proposed as our way of getting back involved" in the low-income, economically stagnant area around Midtown, said Albert Lee, president of the TBBBIC.

The incubator would give business owners the experience of securing loans and building their credit score.

"We're doing it in a way that prepares them to be able to repay a loan," said Nikki Gaskin-Capehart, director of urban affairs for the city of St. Petersburg.

TBBBIC owns the building on 22nd Street S that is home to the Esquire Barber Shop and Nation Tax Services. When the third office space opened, Lee said, TBBBIC decided to create another business incubator rather than leasing the space to a small business. About 10 years ago, the entire building was a business incubator, but budget cuts forced the TBBBIC to pull out.

The project has faced setbacks. It was included in St. Petersburg's 2020 Plan, intended to reduce poverty in the city by 30 percent by 2020. City officials requested $1.625 million from the state. The Legislature approved the appropriation, but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it.

"The grant would certainly have gone a long way," Lee said. "Nevertheless, we'll move forward …"

Though less money will be available from the city, Gaskin-Capehart said the city is still committed to the project.

Most of the funding will now come from the TBBBIC, which relies on a capital fund supported by local financial institutions and private contributors. Lee said he is trying to raise more from corporate partners.

Entrepreneurs are ready for assistance. Much of the year, the Deuces Live Market is open on Sundays at 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue S, a once-bustling but now struggling street known as "the Deuces." It features local business owners like Oliver. (The market is closed for the summer and will reopen Sept. 14.)

"We have an absolutely captive talent pool right now because of the Deuces Market," Gaskin-Capehart said. "They've already tested the market and are ready to grow."

But not every entrepreneur thinks loans are the solution to the problems of the business community around Midtown.

Virginia Bautista, 70, has been an entrepreneur since she was in her 20s. She recently moved to the area and is the seamstress at Elihu's Consignment at 913 22nd St. S. She believes in starting with the resources she has and working from there.

Taking a loan, she said, starts a process of owing others money, and she doesn't think that is a good position for a new business owner. Starting slow and gradually building a client base is her business strategy.

"That's the most logical thing to do," Bautista said. "It's worked for me."

But Bautista is a firm believer in supporting small businesses in the area.

Tony Macon, the owner of Esquire Barber Shop and president of Deuces Live, a Florida Main Street organization working to restore 22nd Street S, believes small businesses go beyond the Deuces and shape the community of St. Petersburg.

"I believe in not just 22nd or the Deuces," Macon said. "I believe in building the whole community up."

Jennifer Nesslar is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Contact her at (727) 418-7955.