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Land of Opportunity : Land of Opportunity

Black entrepreneurs are flocking to the fast-growing Inland Empire, where they find cheaper rents and loyal customers and are making the region a . . .

December 22, 1996|DENISE HAMILTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joe Orr, stationed at March Air Force Base in Riverside County, looked around and liked what he saw: a quiet, peaceful region that was drawing large numbers of newcomers like him.

So when he retired from the military in 1990, Orr fulfilled his lifelong dream: He opened a dry-cleaning business in Moreno Valley, whose population of 133,000 is 13% African American.

Orr took out ads in local black newspapers and mailed out thousands of fliers. Clients referred friends and word of Orr's business spread.

Today he has many customers who drive 20 miles or more to patronize A-1 Cleaners, the only black-owned dry cleaner in the area. Although Moreno Valley has been hit hard by recession after the building boom of the 1980s collapsed, Orr is holding on.

"My family has had dry cleaners before, so I know the business and I'm used to working hard," he says.

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Orr epitomizes a phenomenon that is quietly taking root in the Inland Empire, whose black population increased 119% to 169,128 between 1980 and 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, making it the suburban area with the fastest-growing black population in the country. During that time, the Inland Empire's overall population rose to 2,588,793, a 66% increase.

Businesses owned by African Americans are multiplying and thriving in the region, tapping into a booming black population, taking advantage of reasonable commercial rents and exercising an entrepreneurial spirit in an area that has seen numerous new residential developments in the last 15 years.

Some businesses are transplants from Los Angeles, although there has been no large-scale migration from the traditional black business districts such as Crenshaw, black business people say.

In fact, many of the Inland Empire's businesses are brand-new. The number of companies, which range from mom-and-pop outfits such as dry cleaners and Creole restaurants to financial planners, dentists, car dealerships and industrial manufacturing firms, has grown exponentially.

In 1990, the Inland Empire African American Chamber of Commerce was launched with six members. Today it has about 90, and it's not unusual to find more than 100 business people from all walks of life showing up at meetings to network and share ideas.

Cheryl Brown, co-publisher of Black Voice News, a weekly newspaper based in Riverside, sees the growth reflected in her publication. Ads have nearly doubled in the last five years, she says. And each week, the News runs several legal notices on black-owned businesses that are about to open.

"There's a lot of opportunity here," Brown says. "People come and they see the need and they establish a business."

Many of the new business people are involved in the information economy. With a computer and a modem, they could live anywhere and telecommute, but they are settling in cities such as Rialto, which is 20.4% black, according to the 1990 census.

Dennis Schatzman, a journalism professor at Cal State Fullerton and a syndicated newspaper columnist, moved to Ontario from Los Angeles three years ago because of cheaper real estate.

"You can get something real slick in Rialto and the Moreno Valley. My mortgage is $405 a month, and I have a pool," he said.

All is not paradise in the Inland Empire, however. Moreno Valley, for example, has been hard-hit by recession after the building boom of the 1980s collapsed and the city's largest revenue stream, developer fees, dried up. In recent years, the city, which lacks the stable, diversified business and industrial base other municipalities count on, has had problems meeting its budget. Many owners of small businesses have hung on through the downturn, struggling to survive.

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African American business owners say they face other, more general obstacles to success. The biggest is gaining access to capital. Many say they have been turned down for loans by banks or city agencies for no good reason they can see other than the fact that they are black.

"Racism is alive and prevalent, and there's a definite effort to make sure that minority-owned businesses only go so far," says Harold L. Sumpter, an Ohio native who moved to the Inland Empire 10 years ago and started a manufacturing firm in Riverside.

Today, his H&H Industries has $5 million in annual sales and employs 70 people that make material-handling equipment such as racks and containers. The company also makes aftermarket truck beds for Toyota trucks.

But Sumpter says he could expand further if he had better financing. "They say the playing field is level, but it isn't," he says.

Sumpter says he was lucky to enlist the support of a black city councilman who lobbied officials on his behalf, and he eventually received a loan from the city of Riverside to purchase his first facility to make the Toyota truck beds. Sumpter says he's one of the few African Americans involved in manufacturing in the Inland Empire and that other black business people have trouble lining up similar assistance.

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