How Immigrant Businesses Contribute to Place-Making and Community Development

Plaza-Midwood neighborhood on Central Avenue in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by James Willamor.

Plaza-Midwood neighborhood on Central Avenue in Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by James Willamor.

Like many metropolitan areas in the U.S. South, Charlotte, North Carolina has grown rapidly over the past two decades. As the Charlotte Observer Editorial Board recently remarked, “Charlotte, for centuries a Southern town of black and white, has grown overnight into a global city of many hues.” This expansion includes one of the fastest growth rates for a place’s foreign-born population found anywhere in the United States—the case for many places across the South. Such demographic change led some observers to dub Charlotte a new immigrant gateway metro area, a Hispanic “hypergrowth” metro area, and a “globalizing” city. Throughout this period of change, Charlotte has had its ups and downs as an immigrant receiving community. Despite manifestations of various warm and cool receptivity in Charlotte, some local leaders expressed warmer receptivity to newcomers by declaring Charlotte a “welcoming city” in 2013, ushering in a new process to encourage greater immigrant and refugee integration.

In 2013, one in ten residents in the Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill metropolitan statistical area were foreign-born (10.1 percent). Meanwhile, immigrants play an outsize role in local business. 16.3 percent of business owners in the Charlotte metro area in 2013 were foreign-born, yet one-third (32.6 percent) of “Main Street” business owners were foreign-born. That statistic should pique the interest of local community and neighborhood leaders as well as urban planners. “Main Street” businesses, according to a recent report from Americas Society/Council of the Americas, are the shops and services that form the backbone of neighborhoods around the country, businesses that fall into three sectors: retail, accommodation and food services, and neighborhood services. These are the types of businesses that typically contribute to the vibrancy of neighborhoods.

As it turns out, a new study published recently in the Journal of Cultural Geography—“Immigrant Businesses, Place-Making, and Community Development: A Case from an Emerging Immigrant Gateway”—by geographers Johanna Claire Schuch and Qingfang Wang of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte—explores “Main Street” immigrant business contributions to place-making and community development in Charlotte. The study finds that “immigrant businesses have transformed deteriorating and abandoned street fronts into vibrant and well-frequented urban environments conducive for further development.”

Focusing on Charlotte’s Central Avenue business corridor, which stretches east from Uptown Charlotte through older streetcar-era and other middle-ring suburbs, Schuch and Wang explore five dimensions of “place-making” (the active engagement of humans with the places they inhabit): physical, social, cultural, economic, and political. They observe that “the vibrancy and upward development trend of this area relative to other corridors most likely resulted from the impacts of immigrant businesses.” As such, “immigrant business corridors can act as centers for economic, social and cultural activities.” In the case of Charlotte’s Central Avenue business corridor, while business owners may have been hesitant to become involved with local politics, they worked together with community organizations and local law enforcement to decrease crime and attract outside visitors.

Processes of neighborhood change are multifaceted and complex, as this study also confirms. “In this process, promoting neighborhood development and revitalization are unlikely to be the main goal of individual business owners,” the authors describe. However, because of the agglomeration of these businesses along Central Avenue and the economic, social, and cultural roles they play in the neighborhood, they are able to collectively have a broader impact in the area. “In this sense,” Schuch and Wang explain, “promotion and development of immigrant business can be used as a planning tool in community development.” In new immigrant destinations in particular—including places in the U.S. South like Charlotte, Atlanta, Birmingham, Nashville, and elsewhere—“immigrant businesses can work as the local focal points, and their owners can act as community leaders by working with planning commissions, thereby potentially improving understanding and building trust between foreign- and native-born populations.” These actions form one component in the broader process of creating more receptive, welcoming, and inclusive places. “In today’s cities,” the authors observe, “the need to build bridges between different groups and neighborhoods is great, and immigrant businesses can help facilitate this.”

In Charlotte and beyond, immigrant businesses, which are embedded in local economies and local urban morphology, socioeconomic and cultural dynamics, are “affecting cities by revitalizing formerly derelict shopping streets by introducing new products and new marketing strategies, by fostering the emergence of new spatial forms of social cohesion, and by opening up links to resources abroad.” But it is also important to understand these processes within the context of the institutional and structural dynamics of a receiving community and the broader processes of urban and economic restructuring. With this in mind, the authors’ findings suggest a need for “comparative studies between different types of neighborhoods at the intra-urban scale or multiple cities at different stages of impacts under immigration and demographic diversification.” Additionally, the study broadly calls “for more in-depth integration of immigrant and ethnic economies in local policies and planning strategies for neighborhood revitalization.” Such conclusions “are particularly pertinent in the context of the continuous ethnic diversification of our neighborhoods and cities.”

Their findings and recommendations are important for the growing number of cities exploring ways to strengthen immigrant and refugee integration. Including a focus on immigrant entrepreneurship as one component of a more comprehensive approach to integration can be a compelling approach for many welcoming cities. As it happens, the Charlotte Immigrant Integration Task Force—a 29-member group composed of individuals from across different sectors of the community—presented their recommendations, based on a year-long study involving learning from others and listening to the community, to the Charlotte City Council on March 23. The recommendations included items that were “prioritized as the most important for creating a safe and welcoming city that will maximize the role of immigrants in expanding the local economy and enriching civic and cultural life.” These recommendations paint a portrait of the importance of a comprehensive approach to immigrant integration.

The Task Force’s recommendations included one to “support immigrant and refugee entrepreneurship and small businesses.” To do this, the Task Force suggested supporting small business growth through community-based partnerships to grow immigrant community-oriented programming; creating a “shop local” list of all small businesses and increasing Small Business Certification of immigrant-owned businesses; prototyping economic development strategies such as a “start-up row” in a vacant strip mall with immigrant entrepreneurs; establishing a program for neighborhoods to apply for designation as “international corridors” to encourage economic development in areas with large immigrant populations; and creating stronger neighborhoods, business corridors and grassroots leadership through multiple strategies.

During the Immigrant Integration Task Force’s presentation to the Charlotte City Council, Task Force Co-Chair Stefan Latorre noted that “one of the reasons we’ve grown here in Charlotte so much is because of immigrants and they’re important for our diversity…Are we going to embrace this diversity so it can help us grow and help our community? These are people living in our community. Or are we going to try to separate them and push them out?” And Task Force Co-Chair Emily Zimmern, President of the Levine Museum of the New South, said “we believe this is critically important for the City of Charlotte for the 21st Century.”

Others from the community also weighed in. “What could Charlotte look like if we had more thoughtful, proactive policies that would engage people who are coming here from other countries?” Jess George, executive director of the Charlotte-based Latin American Coalition, said. “Integration is about advancing economic opportunity. It’s about creating opportunities for civic engagement.” “The recommendations are only a beginning,” The Charlotte Observer noted. “But together they heighten awareness and give voice to a vital ambition—that this city be deliberate about maximizing immigrants’ contributions.”

Charlotte is but one example of a rapidly growing list of cities—places large and small across the U.S. with diverse histories of receiving immigrants—that are expanding their engagement with immigrant and refugee integration. Meanwhile, at the federal level, the White House Task Force on New Americans, which was created by Presidential Memorandum as part of the administration’s immigration executive action in November 2014, is set to unveil their recommendations to President Obama by the end of March. The recommendations will suggest ways in which the federal government can play a role in immigrant and refugee integration at the national level, which includes supporting and encouraging innovative local level initiatives. In February, organizations around the country submitted a plethora of ideas for the Task Force’s consideration. For now, the ongoing innovative work in places like Charlotte to encourage immigrant businesses and other components for comprehensive immigrant and refugee integration can influence and inform conversations around immigrant integration more broadly.

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