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Revised African Town moves ahead

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Revised African Town moves ahead

Detroit officials hand the plan for an all-black business district to a private development firm.

By Natalie Y. Moore / The Detroit News

DETROIT - As the Detroit City Council recovers from the embarrassment of trying to create a black business district that was rife with the possibility of political and legal challenges, the task of fashioning a legitimate African Town has begun.

Claud Anderson's racially inflammatory language, part of the original proposal for a black entrepreneurial enclave, has been withdrawn from the table.

And tempers have simmered among minority groups, who were initially upset over the language and the premise that the plan would provide loans exclusively to blacks.

While African Town still has several hurdles to clear before it could come to fruition, the issue has prompted a racial dialogue and understanding in the city among ethnic groups. But at the same time, it perpetuated the divisiveness of the City Council.

The council voted 5-4 to turn over the African Town project to the quasi-public Detroit Economic Growth Corp., the lead private development agency for the city.

George Jackson, the corporation's president, said the agency is doing an assessment of the concept before doing a timeline. He entertained the possibility of developing vacant land as well as using existing commercial areas for expansion.

"A need has been defined to help and support the businesses owned by African-Americans and other minorities," he said. "I don't think we should start off by boxing ourselves in with one theory."

Neither money nor location has been ironed out, but Jackson said the corporation is working on the project.

? He said there are a number of ways to tackle funding, such as tapping government programs, but equity from developers and business owners is necessary, too.

Many community leaders say they no longer begrudge an African Town now that the council backpedaled from its original actions. The first plan, which Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick vetoed and the council then overturned this summer, called for creating a loan fund using public dollars for blacks only, based on Anderson's report, which blamed immigrants for taking jobs from blacks.

"Whether the African-American community wants an African Town is not for the Arab community to decide," said Jumana Judeh of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce. "Any opportunities that are going to build this city (are good)."

In response to the first plan, nonblack minorities held protests at City Hall.

The result of their efforts was a new resolution recognizing European, Latino, Arab, Chaldean and Asian business owners as contributors to the city's economic fabric. It also promises to proceed legally to establish a business district to incorporate the rich heritage of blacks in Detroit.

Frank Wu, the new Wayne State University Law School dean and author of "Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White," said a race relations lesson has been learned.

"It's complicated. It's become more than just black and white. It involves Arabs, Asians, Latinos and immigrants who might be black or white as well. It's about money and symbolism. And the process of bridge building will take tremendous time and effort and frustration. But it is absolutely necessary. Most importantly, nonblack minorities have learned how important it is to reach out to African-Americans," Wu said.

Latino leaders raised their political profile, too, which could influence next year's council race when all nine members are up for re-election.

"If the Hispanic community rallies around a particular candidate who already has a citywide presence, that community could ... make a difference in a new person making the council or a person becoming (council) president," said political consultant Greg Bowens.

The city is 82 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic, up from 3 percent in 1990. Much of the new development in Detroit is occurring in southwest Detroit, a largely Latino corridor. Twelve-thousand black businesses exist in the city but the tax base is low and economic blight is prevalent.

Maria Elena Rodriguez, president of the Mexican Town Community Development Corporation, said people were initially opposed to the exclusion of people, not African Town.

"I think we nipped it in the bud," Rodriguez said of the controversy.

Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel voted against the original resolution but favors the new one.

"I really hope the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. and the planning commission staff and various black trade organizations ... identify some private sector and public sector dollars" for a district that celebrates historic and cultural contributions of African-Americans, she said.

You can reach Natalie Y. Moore at (313) 222-2396 or [email protected]

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