City officials are delaying plans to relaunch the Raleigh Business and Technology Center after Southeast Raleigh leaders complained they were left out of a “visioning process” held earlier this year.
Last month, the Raleigh City Council heard initial recommendations from a 17-member “visioning team” tasked with developing a new model for the incubator program. The city-owned incubator building has been vacant since last fall, when the nonprofit running the center was evicted amid charges of fraud and mismanagement.
The group suggested that the city shouldn’t limit the program to “any one sole type of occupant” – a big change from the old organization that required tenants to be minority-owned businesses.
Several neighborhood leaders in Southeast Raleigh said they were unaware that a visioning team had been created.
“Nobody I've talked to seems to know who made the appointments to the visioning team,” Bruce Lightner wrote to City Manager Ruffin Hall. “There does not seem to be any record that the city council made such appointments.”
Lightner also pointed out that none of the 17 team members live in Southeast Raleigh, although the group did include the director of the nonprofit Southeast Raleigh Assembly.
“They have no frame of reference and no way of knowing the history of the community nor how and why virtually all black businesses have vanished over the last 30 years,” he wrote.
Responding to Lightner’s concerns, Hall said the city will hold off on seeking proposals from nonprofits and other organizations interested in fostering startups at the center’s two-story building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
“I believe we need to take a moment to step back and revise the input process to make sure all the proper voices are heard before moving forward with any selection criteria or requests for proposals,” Hall wrote. “We are going to work with staff and key stakeholders to develop a revised approach that is transparent, open and fair.”
Last week, Gail Roper – the city’s chief information officer who led the visioning team – was questioned at the South Central Citizens Advisory Council meeting. Members of the neighborhood group voiced concerns that the incubator might lose its focus on Southeast Raleigh and the mission it established decades ago.
Lightner says he’s among those who initially pushed for the small business incubator. He and his father, Mayor Clarence Lightner, both served on the Southeast Raleigh Improvement Commission in the 1990s when plans were drawn up.
Lightner said the need for a minority-owned incubator is greater than ever. “With the exception of a few funeral homes, barber shops and beauty shops you would be hard-pressed to find any black owned restaurants, hotels, car dealerships, clothing retail stores or grocery stores,” he said. “They have all vanished.”
While the debate on the building’s future continues, the small office suites remain largely empty, with just a few tenants from the earlier program remaining.