After more than a quarter-century of struggle to nurture small businesses in the challenging environment of South Los Angeles, Marva Smith Battle-Bey received national recognition for her efforts Monday when the Small Business Administration honored her as its 2007 National Minority Small Business Champion.
Battle-Bey, president and chief executive of the Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit she has headed since 1981, credited her organization's track record for the award.
"I think it's the staying power of the work that we've done, and the results," Battle-Bey said.
Her first big project, the Vermont Slauson Shopping Center, opened in 1981. It was the first major retail investment in the community since the 1965 Watts riots, she said, and today it remains fully leased.
The executive also fostered the first business incubator in South L.A., built two affordable housing projects and launched many business development and technical assistance initiatives.
But perhaps her biggest success has been leveraging the neighborhood's changing demographics to persuade the Gigante grocery store chain, Mexico's third largest, to open a store in 2003.
Gigante now anchors the 60,000-square-foot Vermont Slauson Retail Center, developed by Battle-Bey's group at Vermont and Slauson avenues.
The widely heralded achievement was a long time coming, typical of the sometimes painfully slow pace of commercial economic development projects. Battle-Bey's organization bought the four-acre parcel from Safeway Inc.'s Vons supermarket chain in 1998.
This year, a Starbucks coffee shop and a Yoshinoya fast-food outlet will open in the remaining retail space at the center, where the nonprofit has its offices. But efforts to attract a sit-down restaurant failed and a proposed Burger King was unable to obtain financing.
Today, 15 years after the civil unrest of 1992 and the flurry of post-riot investment promises by businesses and government, attracting new businesses continues to be a tough sell. Aside from Gigante, the area still lacks grocery stores.
Battle-Bey has fought to bring new businesses and to encourage local entrepreneurs in an effort to fill the gaps in services and jobs.
"The more people and jobs there are, the more businesses there are, the more commerce, leading to better housing, better education. So it's all kind of tied together," said Battle-Bey, a Detroit native who earned her master's degree in urban planning at USC.
Battle-Bey, who is recuperating from her second knee surgery, is beginning to think about passing the baton to a new generation of community leaders. She would like to move on in a few years, possibly teaching, writing or public speaking, she said. Battle-Bey recently talked about her work in an interview.
Has interest in South Los Angeles waned since the 1992 unrest?
There's been some. But for every new development in our neighborhood, you know that whoever the developer is, they had to work hard to get those tenants to come to their development. It wasn't easy. The shopping center that was built adjacent to our neighborhood, many people see that and say, Wow! That's great. But the developer had to pull teeth to get the tenants to sign up because of the perception. The perception is still there that people cannot make money in our neighborhood, of the violence and of the increased cost to do business in South L.A.
How available is the money you need to do your work?
I would say it is way down. When I came into this work in the '80s during the Reagan administration, everything was being slashed -- the FDA, HUD, the Department of Commerce, every place you could think of where there was money coming into underserved communities. I'm used to working with less money. But there is even less money now and you have more groups fighting for the same pot of money. It's more competitive. There are more regulations. And it's more difficult to access those avenues than ever. So it's a struggle.
Is the area still a tough sell to developers?
It's not easy to convince people to come. It hasn't gotten any easier. But people now know what the issues are, so it's not like you are talking to people who, 25 years ago, were uninformed. Today at least people know that if they are interested in our community, they can get better marketing statistics to help them see what the numbers are. In the past, people just didn't believe there was an opportunity.
Your last big project was done in 2003, and half of your board has retired but not been replaced. Is the corporation in a lull?