Incubating black businesses in 'tri-ethnic' Miami

Jim Sinkfield emerges from under the hood of a Ford to greet a visitor. Moving easily from the greasy work of his automotive garage to the financial mechanics of his office, he explains that his new business is expanding. He is breaking even after only three months of operation. Despite workdays that sometimes don't end until 3 a.m., he says he enjoys the challenge of putting a business together.

Mr. Sinkfield's new automotive shop is part of a private-sector project called the Business Assistance Center (BAC) designed to ''incubate'' black business enterprise.

Meanwhile, just four miles due south in the thriving Little Havana barrio, Hispanic businessmen work industriously to stage Carnaval Miami - an outgrowth of the rapid evolution of the Cubans' business assimilation. The spring festival annually attracts half a million people to revel in the prosperity of the Hispanic culture here.

The sheer volume of Hispanic influence and success has not been enjoyed by the Latin minority anywhere in the United States as it has been in this city. ''To be Hispanic in Dade County is totally different from being Hispanic in Los Angeles or Chicago or New York . . . you can be at the top of the pyramid,'' observes a Miami civic leader. To be black in Miami, on the other hand, observers say, is no different from being black in any other city in the country and is just as fraught with economic frustrations.

With more than half its population Hispanic and a quarter black, Miami is often referred to as a tri-ethnic community. But while minorities have become the majority here, the disparities between Little Havana and Liberty City (the largest neighborhoods of Hispanics and blacks, respectively, in Miami) are obvious and have been underscored by the black civil disturbances in Overtown and Liberty City. Census statistics show Miami to be the nation's sixth-poorest city, with 1 of every 4 in Miami below the poverty level.

While business success seemed to be a part of the Cuban culture, the black business community has languished despite repeated government attempts to employ and train blacks. Miami's particular problems have spawned the BAC, an employment development program with a different and very definite free-enterprise twist.

''It sounds like a selfish motivation, but we realized (after the 1980 riots that) for Miami to really work well together and prosper, it's better if all (ethnic groups) do well,'' explains Charles Babcock, a real estate developer whose work with the largely white Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce created BAC.

BAC's purpose is simple: to create new opportunities for black-owned businesses. Chamber of Commerce members provide $7 million for the center. BAC's director, Newall Daughtrey, is a black businessman described by one client as a ''serious guy who doesn't give nothin' away.''

Mr. Sinkfield, one of the first to be accepted to the BAC program, received a could not qualify for. ''It's the closest thing to a bank we have,'' says Mr. Sinkfield. (Indeed, the first black bank president in Miami was appointed this year.)

But the program is not a giveaway, Daughtrey and Sinkfield are quick to explain. Mr. Sinkfield spent two years researching his marketing and business plans, and Mr. Daughtrey says this is the approach BAC wants to see.

''It's not sufficient to give a person money if he lacks the business know-how to succeed,'' Daughtrey says. He explains that the center carefully chooses its clients and that in every instance ''a market must exist, he must have technical expertise to access that market, and have the managerial skills to run a business.''

A client doesn't need an MBA, Daughtrey continues.''We're not funding degrees , we're funding people, and if you show us you understand the financial requirements, we have the services to offer that you couldn't afford to pay for. And most important in this ''incubation'' process, says Mr. Daughtrey, each client has an experienced businessman as a counselor.

While only 200 applications have been processed to date, with only a handful gaining BAC-backing on their business plans, Mr. Babcock believes it is the most realistic plan the troubled black community has seen.

Meanwhile, some suggest that the disparities between black and Hispanic business communties here have created racial tensions. The most frequently cited example is the recent Overtown disturbance, in which blacks rioted after a Hispanic police officer shot a black man to death during a scuffle. And Cuban refugees have generally taken whatever jobs they could get when arriving on Florida shores, presumably edging out blacks. Others claim that the problem antedates the relatively recent influx of Cubans.

But the Cubans, says one black observer, had only to face economic discrimination which was overcome by the first wave of refugees, educated professionals who provided the groundwork for future Cuban immigrants. The ambition and strong community ties the Cubans developed helped them assimilate newcomers, while blacks continued to languish because of racial discrimination that is harder to overcome.

While the Hispanic community is not without its own economic problems, it is largely perceived as ambitious and successful in business affairs, says Leslie Pantin Jr., an insurance executive and Cuban community leader. He says Cubans run everything from car dealerships to supermarkets, adding that he had ''lost count'' of the number of Latin bank presidents.

Mr. Pantin and other Cuban residents here promote the idea that the Cubans ''take care of their own,'' that the majority of refugees of the last boatlift have been absorbed into the Cuban community.

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