A new effort is underway in Baltimore to provide Black entrepreneurs with downtown storefronts that became vacant during the COVID-19 pandemic, financial assistance, and a sense of community.
The BOOST program aims to strengthen and revitalize the Central Business District of Baltimore by supporting small, creative Black-owned retail businesses and arming them with expert financial and business resources to set them up for success. BOOST is symbiotic in that it benefits the new businesses it funds and fills retail space vacancies in Downtown Baltimore.
The program is being led by Morgan State University alum and DPOB President Shelonda Stokes, who noticed Baltimore’s downtown area did not reflect the city’s demographics.
“We knew we were looking at a downtown that didn’t feel representative of the demographics of Baltimore, so you talk about a city that is predominantly African-American, but when you looked at the makeup of our downtown, it didn’t feel like that, and part of what different groups have been saying is they did not feel welcome, and that’s not the Baltimore anybody wanted,” Stokes told BLACK ENTERPRISE.
The program was launched in 2021 and is sponsored by Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE), the Guinness Open Gate Brewery, and Fearless, a Baltimore-based digital services company that joined as a sponsor for the program’s second cohort.
The application period for the second cohort opened on Feb. 6, 2023, and will run through March 31.
LaTonya Turnage, the owner of Elite Secrets Bridal, located in downtown Baltimore’s Mount Vernon fashion boutique district, was part of the first cohort of businesses. Turnage told Black Enterprise she couldn’t believe how much the program has helped her and her business.
“Everything that they were offering in the program I could just not believe; there were five different spaces in the downtown area at the Charles Street Corridor where you actually got to pick from,” says Turnage. “There were landlords that were part of the program where they would help you put together the right lease and help with leasing negotiations; they had accountants, coaches, and a five-week boot camp where we met once a week. We had the full support of the downtown partnership, and we still have that support.”
“For them to invest and just think of everything you would need to start a business is so exciting,” I learned so much to help me in my current business and open the design house, which I think is incredible. We all became family— the first five—we’re there for each other, and we support each other through this entire process. Some of the other boosters have opened their businesses, so they’re thriving as well, and we’re excited to see them thrive.”
According to Stokes, her team will use the experiences and knowledge gained from the program’s first cohort to make changes and improvements for the second cohort. Furthermore, the program is bringing in additional experts.
One of the changes that could be made is to cluster the cohorts to build a sense of community within each group. According to Stokes, the businesses in the first cohort still contact each other regularly for advice, assistance, and more.
The program is also considering increasing the amount of money each business in the cohort receives to help their operations.
“There is a benefit to creating this sort of ecosystem that people can just come to, and now you’re expanding the base of people who would need it,” Stokes told Black Enterprise. “So that’s another area where we see an opportunity to do some shifts and make the program even better.”