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Here’s why St. Pete’s effort to include LGBTQ category in business program is not a slight to marginalized communities

Some residents are worried the city’s plan will boost one community at the cost of another.

St. Petersburg NAACP President Maria Scruggs is questioning the city’s plan to include an LGBTQ category in its Small Business Enterprise program.

City Council is scheduled to discuss an addition to the program that would allow LGBTQ small business owners to register with the city as a small business enterprise. Doing so would give those businesses access to educational outreach opportunities on how to participate in city procurement for construction and goods and services contracts.

“My letter to the council will be asking them to provide the data to show where the LGBTQ community has been disenfranchised as business owners,” Scruggs wrote on Facebook.

Her comment garnered more than 80 comments – most supporting her concerns and some questioning whether she was pitting one marginalized community against another.

Scruggs did not respond for further comment but her post and subsequent responses raise questions about how the city manages protections for its African-American community versus that of LGBTQ individuals, businesses and families. She said the conversations she’s starting “aren’t about anti-gay” rather they are “pro-black.”

“It’s a known fact that Black owned businesses are disproportionately left out of the equation in Pinellas County,” Scruggs wrote. “The warehouse Arts District has skyrocketed because they have unwavering support and unfortunately it has been to the detriment of the Deuces.”

The Warehouse Arts District straddles 22nd Street South and lies just north of the 22nd Street South corridor known as the Deuces that serves as a downtown hub for the impoverished Midtown community, which is mostly African-American.

Scruggs presents a concern that’s not uncommon in St. Pete. Many feel the current city administration under Mayor Rick Kriseman has failed to adequately address the needs of the African-American community. It was one of the top issues in Kriseman’s reelection campaign against former Mayor Rick Baker.

However, the argument, in this case, is moot.

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The city’s Small Business Enterprise program has been around for decades. In earlier years, the city had minority and disadvantaged business programs that prioritized work on city contracts through various marginalized groups like women, African-Americans, veterans and Asian-Americans, among others.

But a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1983 found cities could not place preferences on governmental bid opportunities unless there was a “found disparity” among groups receiving that preference identified in a disparity study.

That’s why the city has what is known as a “race and gender neutral” small business enterprise program. What St. Pete does is monitor the types of businesses in that program. The data gathered through that monitoring is available to establish a disparity.

But St. Pete hasn’t completed a disparity study since the 1990s and, at that time, there were none found. Now the city is in the midst of another. The results of that study could allow certain preferences for companies bidding for city contracts, according to St. Pete Small Business Liaison Jessica Eilerman

That disparity study will include city purchasing documents and expenditures to evaluate who is receiving city dollars for goods or work. The city already collects self-reported data from African-American owned business to include in that data.

But they don’t currently collect data on LGBTQ-owned businesses. The request City Council will consider next week only adds a self-reporting category. It does not provide any specific protections or preferences to the LGBTQ community, as is currently the case for other included marginalized communities.

“It will give us a benchmark for the impact of LGBTQ business in the city,” said Jim Nixon, Kriseman’s LGBTQ community liaison. “It gives the city the opportunity to see if we are doing an adequate job of having access to work with the city. They already do that with other marginalized communities.”

Until results from a new disparity study are complete, the city’s SBE program can only make suggestions about Small Business Enterprise inclusion in city procurement. It also offers educational programs to registered small businesses on how to bid for contracts and provides other resources to grow businesses.

“There is investment happening. There is action happening. There is a lot of encouragement and effort going on to get more participation,” Eilerman said. “The efforts we’re taking, the investment with the disparity study, taking the action, it’s all about opportunity creation and ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to succeed.”

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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