Boosting business associations

Boosting business associations
The Alexandria Sidewalk Sale is led by Visit Alexandria in partnership with the Old Town Business Association. (Photo/Igda Warner for Visit Alexandria)

By Kassidy McDonald

The Alexandria Economic Development Partnership and the City of Alexandria will give out $535,000 in grants to eight different business associations in the city through a grant program.

The ALX B2B Business Association Grant Program will “fund existing or emerging business associations to support organizational capacity building, long-term sustainability and improved programming that promotes economic prosperity,” according to the AEDP website. “The grant aims to accelerate economic growth within business districts and among the small business community by creating robust and sustainable business associations.”

Business associations are a vital part of economic development and success in the City of Alexandria. When individual businesses become members of business associations, they are given opportunities to network, create partnerships with other small businesses and can even create city-wide changes. Individual businesses choose to be members of bigger associations, but many find it comes as an advantage because of all the possibilities that become available to them once they join.

“Our business associations offer the opportunity to collaborate and coordinate for our businesses as they continue to recover from the challenges of the pandemic and potential future uncertainty. This program will give them the support they need to in turn support their member businesses and ensure that they and Alexandria continue not only to recover but to succeed well into the future,” AEDP President and CEO Stephanie Landrum said in a news release.

The money for the grant program comes from the American Rescue Plan Act. The $535,000 in grant money was given to the AEDP by the city. The AEDP then distributes money to the associations once the grantees are chosen. Applications for the grant opened this summer and were awarded on Oct. 24.

The grant program application was not open for individual businesses, but for business associations who have members in Alexandria. These include associations who made it their mission to promote businesses in targeted geographical areas in the city, those who highlight minority business owners and those who have demonstrated that the funds will be used towards immediate and long term economic development and recovery.

Eight business associations applied and every applicant received a grant: Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, Alexandria Minority Business Association, Inc., Del Ray Business Association, Eisenhower Avenue Public-Private Partnership, Old Town Business Association, Old Town North Alliance, Social Responsibility Group and West End Business Association all received funding through the program.

Senay Gebremedhin, the AEDP’s economic recovery manager has led the grantmaking process with the eight different business associations. He said the organization had two primary goals when it came to the program.

“The initial goal was to first see if there are businesses that wanted to organize themselves into an association and offer services in areas where businesses felt they were not being represented or wanted representation. … The second goal was to support existing business associations that have been serving the community, to give them funding to either expand their capacity or help them refocus their programming on the needs of their members,” Gebremedhin said.

The AEDP gave grant funding to two associations that focused on underrepresented groups, the SRG and the Alexandria Minority Business Association, but Gebremedhin said four out of the eight groups had applications that narrowly focused on promoting minority representation within their respective associations and within the city as a whole.

West End Business Association has majority minority membership and is led by a minority business owner, Gebremedhin said. The other business association that focuses on minority businesses in Alexandria is the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. In their grant application, they noted that the grant funding would be used to help promote minority owned businesses in the city. They would use the funds to help minority business owners with leadership and development, as well as doing outreach.

Pastor Lou Whiting is the president and one of five founders of the Social Responsibility Group, which received funding from the AEDP through the ALX B2B Business Association Grant Program.

“Our initiative that drove us to form the group was to be more socially responsible individuals in the City of Alexandria, looking at different social issues. Not just Black Lives Matter … [but also] housing and even a project we’re working on now with Douglass Memorial Cemetery … We want to span visibility, so that is why we organized this group,” Whiting said.

“AEDP’s grant funding was more for actually building capacity and sustainability for the group, which is sorely needed” Whiting added. “It’s hard to build an organization of all volunteers. We wanted it to be sustainable.”

Goals for the SRG include bringing a lot more attention to Black businesses in the city. In August 2023, the group plans on tying in with National Black Business Week to do a “Black Business Weekend” in Alexandria. This would be graduated to an entire week eventually, Whiting said. Grant money from the funding may go towards needed equipment for the group, renting a shared space for meetings and business and for one of their main goals which is to build an African American business directory.

“This would be an excellent tool for the City of Alexandria,” Whiting said about creating a directory. “We’re meeting now to pick out maybe three or four things with the grant funding that will help us push forward and accomplish our goals.”

To make sure the grant funding is successful for every business association that received it, the AEDP is working with each association individually.

Gebremedhin said there are “many layers” of how the AEDP is keeping contact with the grantees. There is a monthly call with all the business associations, those that received the grants and also business associations in the city that did not apply for the grants. This monthly call is not new, but rather something the AEDP will continue even after the funding period. This call, said Gebremedhin, is put in place to establish networks for all of the business associations in the city.

There will also be a monthly and quarterly report to the AEDP that is required by the eight associations who did receive funding. Lastly, the AEDP offers technical assistance to all of the recipients which helps them keep in contact regularly. Even without funding, the AEDP will act as a resource for these organizations long-term.

“One of the reasons why we’re tracking everybody’s activity and how they’re using the funding is we’ve built in, within this funding, that it would be sustainable beyond the funding period. Our work, within the associations, even if we do not fund them, will continue … their monthly calls will continue, our engagement with them will continue because we believe in the value of the associations for the city and the work that AEDP does within the city,” Gebremedhin said.