“You never will have liberation until you have something that is your own.” — Rep. Dwight Evans

As anyone who has started their own business can tell you, it’s often personal connections and networks that make the difference between thriving and floundering. Those networks tend to be neighborhood-based, which is why small businesses are often the lifeblood of their own communities– or absent from some communities altogether. Congressman Dwight Evans (D-PA), reminiscing about the North Philly neighborhood where he grew up, says there were “corner stores, supermarkets, people owning shops. Bars! African Americans were big owners of bars. When I grew up, bars were where black people could go.” These small businesses served as informal meeting places where entrepreneurs could offer advice and mentorship to their neighbors. “It becomes like a nucleus, it becomes an exchange of ideas and information.” When a neighborhood starts to lose its small businesses, it also loses those opportunities to teach and learn: “Where is the public space to have these kind of conversations?” Evans now represents Pennsylvania’s 2nd district, which includes his old neighborhood. He argues that now, the best way to help low-income neighborhoods is to bolster those vital connections and support networks with active and well-funded Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs).

The Congressman is a co-sponsor of the SBDC Improvement Act of 2017, also known as H.R. 1702. Small Business Development Centers provide education and consulting services to entrepreneurs looking to start or grow their small business; they offer confidential, one-on-one sessions to help with things like testing a new business proposition, shaping a business plan, investigating funding opportunities and developing marketing strategies.  Congressman Evans’s bill would expand the SBDC program to provide grants, financial assistance, loans, and subcontracting opportunities to small businesses.

Indie-Life Mag sat down with Congressman Evans in his Philadelphia office on Ogontz Avenue to discuss the business of politics and the politics of business development, especially on a local level. Evans has witnessed the organic growth of small businesses first hand along Ogontz Ave. In college he made money promoting shows (“We used to do disco! I know they don’t do that anymore…”) and filling local bars and clubs at $5 a ticket, picking up business tips along the way. He delights in telling the story of Paul Beale’s Florist, a black-owned Mom-and-Pop shop that has been in business for 47 years and is still thriving in the hands of Beale’s daughter. Comparing that near half-century to the two to three years most new businesses stay open, Evans says, “A lot of that was mentoring. Cause business is about mentoring and developing and learning.”

The SBDC Improvement Act would formalize that concept and bring the government into more direct connections with small businesses. “Paul Beale had an informal way of mentoring,” Evans explains. “The small business development center is more of a formal structure. You need that formalized structure. That formalized structure gives you the foundation in order to compete.”

He’s well aware of the objections this kind of project inevitably raises from conservatives, and easily dismisses any fears of federal meddling in private businesses. “Let’s talk about the entrepreneur and the politician,” he says. “My role [as a Congressman is] basically to try to create an environment and atmosphere where you could do business. My role is not to tell you how to do business, my role is to create the environment to attract business, so let’s talk about how.”

Drawing on his own experiences in North Philly–he was first elected as a State Representative in 1980– Evans outlines the steps towards creating that environment. The first two are closely linked: safe streets and clean streets. Back in the 80s when Ogontz Ave. was lined with vacant storefronts and the surrounding neighborhood was rife with crime, he struck a deal with the police captain to put a “mini-station” on the avenue. He pushed the city to clean up the streets and worked with the police to make it a safer area. His ultimate objective, however, was to eliminate the need for a police presence altogether; through economic improvement he hoped to create a neighborhood that effectively policed itself. A glance outside his office windows shows that the plan worked. “Activity has been raised,” Evans said. “And now you see very few empty stores.”

The next big step, of course, is getting that seed money. Once a neighborhood feels safe and clean, local entrepreneurs need access to capital to get their start. That’s where Congressman Evans’s bill comes in. Currently, SBDCs help businesses find a model that works, plan for the future, and create a brand. With the SBDC Improvement Act, those centers will be able to do even more by providing funding to local small businesses.

The Congressman is optimistic about getting support some high-level support for his bill. “President Trump recognizes that this is a priority,” he says. “He’s a developer at heart. That’s what he does. He creates stuff.” Evans cited an example of how Trump took an old post office and turned it into a hotel using a rehabilitation tax credit. “I want to use that to modernize schools,” he said. “Some of our schools were built when Teddy Roosevelt was president. That’s 100 years ago.”

Congressman Evans knows you have to be tough to make it in business–or in politics. “Will you have failures? The answer is yes. You might as well accept that fact. Before I got elected to Congress I ran for Lieutenant Governor and lost, ran for Governor and lost, ran for Mayor twice and lost. You’ve got to understand that if you’re gonna be in this game, this game is not for the weak. My grandfather always used to say: It’s a great life if you don’t weaken, but who wants to be strong? And that means there’s going to be some failure until you find that sweet spot.”

So the game will always be tough. But the SBDC Improvement Act might make it just a little easier for more small business owners to find “that sweet spot.”

by Greg Hoffman

video by Derrick Woodyard