Within the Buffalo Niagara region, many positive changes are having an impact: from multimillion-dollar development projects, to an active and growing startup/tech scene. All of this finds many people, businesses, and communities experiencing growth and success. But it’s not necessarily being done inclusively, equitably, with diversity, or in every community.
That’s where the Beverly Gray Business Exchange Center comes in. The newly opened resource center on Buffalo’s East Side is an accessible hub for businesses owned by people from minority populations, women, and service-disabled veterans. The center is named after late City Councilmember Beverly A. Gray, who was a vocal community advocate.
As part of Mayor Byron Brown’s Opportunity Agenda, the Exchange has been in the works for a few years; in 2017, Next Street LLC was selected as its program operator, and the center officially opened in January 2019.
In the first three months of its existence, the center “blitzed” the East Side with a PR campaign, “meeting with over 100 businesses and groups to raise awareness of the Exchange, our services, and our role within the entrepreneurship system,” said Royce Woods, the center’s executive director.
Housed in the former North Jefferson Public Library, the building’s been freshly renovated into welcoming office space. The Exchange has staff on site to offer clients services such as business planning, education and advice, strategy assessments, and funding identification. Clients will also have access to pro bono legal, accounting, and professional services, adding to their ability to launch or continue their business. There are even nonprofit lenders in the building to assist clients with applying for the funds.
One of the center’s most compelling mandates is to increase the number of Buffalo’s certified minority and women-owned business enterprises (M/WBE). Because the city and state certification processes are complex, an M/WBE certification compliance coordinator is located within the Exchange.
Once a business is M/WBE-certified, it can access and bid on many available procurement opportunities with the county, city, and state. The fact is, although developers are mandated to contract with a percentage of M/WBEs on certain projects, that percentage is often not met due to a lack of certified businesses.
“One of the most exciting services we offer is ‘contract matchmaking,’” said Woods. “In concert with area anchor institutions and development partners, we’ll assess both the opportunities and our M/WBE clients’ capacities, and make business-to-business referrals and connections.”
The Exchange’s strategic partners include the Western New York Law Center, the Buffalo State Small Business Development Center, and the Local Initiative Support Coalition Buffalo.
In addition to business planning, financial assistance, and certification support, the Exchange intends to be a serious networking resource. “We’re offering networking space at the Exchange, and helping small businesses network with each other—to meet other business and service organizations through hosting events,” added Woods.
While potential clients are encouraged to visit Exchange’s website and make an initial appointment, walk-ins are also welcome—and have been the majority of traffic so far. One of the mayor’s original intentions, to have a center like this located on the East Side, is being realized.
“Another long-term goal, along with creating a robust database of qualified M/WBEs, is to work with smaller home-based businesses, encouraging them to move into area storefronts along Bailey, Fillmore, Michigan, and Jefferson,” said Woods. “This activity could be life-changing for individuals, for the community, and the city. We see the center as a headquarters for economic development on the East Side.”
While development on Jefferson is currently very active—with about $250 million in projects right now, the goal is to get more local businesses involved, which can be challenging. “With all this rapid change in the city, we have to adapt to meet ongoing needs of the community,” said Woods. “As we raise the number of certified businesses, it will be a win-win-win: local M/WBEs can both contribute to their own neighborhoods and fight gentrification. And, by agreeing to contract with local businesses, the developers will be making a big impact.”