A middle-aged woman with glasses poked her head into a not-yet-opened store at the Connecticut Post mall in Milford as three women inside worked to prepare the enterprise.
“Hi, I just wanted to wish you well,” she said. They thanked her and went back to their work.
It was a fleeting moment like you’d see ahead of any store opening, except this was not any store and the greeting took on extra meaning.
That large space in the mall is now, as of Thursday, home to the Black Business Alliance, a statewide membership organization that acts as a sort of chamber of commerce, service support, networking platform and advocacy group for any and all Black-owned businesses. And yes, the alliance does have some retail.
As for that woman who stopped in, she was an illustration of why and how a targeted, niche business group that’s expanding quickly sought out a non-traditional location for its offices. No one just drops by at a regular office. At a regional mall, chance encounters can and do happen.
That’s the hope. For Anne-Marie Knight, executive director of the alliance, “It’s like coming back full circle.”
Her first business, a store called Distinguished Gifts, was in the mall in the ‘90s. “I’m excited to be back. It’s nostalgic for me,” Knight told me last week as she prepared for the opening.
This being a mall, the BBA space is also a retail outlet, the new home of ITS The Room, a consignment boutique for clothing and fashion accessories owned by Tia Woods, an ambitious East Hartford woman who sees the shop as part of the BBA’s networking outreach.
It’s a leap for the Black Business Alliance, which has about 200 active business members and 1,200 on its mailing list. And it’s part of an evolution for the Connecticut Post Mall, which, like just about all retail centers built in the mid-to-late-20th century, is looking to broaden the definition of what it is.
“They have a lot of vision, we have a lot of vision,” Knight said. “I think this partnership is a good one.”
The open space includes modernist tables and chairs for meetings and gatherings, work space for the staff near the back wall, and along one side, racks and shelves of clothing and accessories that Woods and her vendors will sell. All together, the idea is to create a gathering space.
The mall has proposed housing to fill an empty, former Sears anchor space and it’s working to attract service businesses and offices into some retail spaces in that quadrant, on the lower floor. The Milford Regional Chamber of Commerce is located just a few doors down from the Black Business Alliance.
Talks over the move started after a manager at the mall approached the alliance. “They wanted us to come here because there are a number of Black businesses in the mall,” Knight said.
Like many of the alliance members, Knight, a business consultant before she came on as director in 2020, has a varied background. Born in Great Britain, her parents Jamaican, she moved to Philadelphia in college in the ‘80s, studied architecture and engineering, later earned a masters in business administration and became an ordained minister with the Salvation Army — which brought her to Connecticut.
She brought all those skills to the 6-year-old alliance as a volunteer when the pandemic hit and later became the director, the only full-time staff member.
“When I realized the devastation that was taking lace for Black businesses, I contacted the BBA and a couple of other organizations,” Knight said.
The group has grown, fueled in part by the post-pandemic economic gains, though with struggles, and in part by a cultural awareness that arose from the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter movement. Today the alliance has three full-time and two part-time staff, plus some contractors including a grant-writer and a tech services consultant.
It’s supported by money from the state Department of Economic and Community Development’s Minority Business Initiative and some foundations and banks, along with membership.
The majority of our businesses are service-type organizations,” Knight said. “That’s been the case nationally for Black businesses.”
There is an auto dealership — woman-owned, in Moosup — among many other types of firms.
We talked about the purpose of the alliance, not only its services, what Knight calls a “hybrid organization” of assistance and networking, but its deeper purpose as a Black service group at a time when diversity might actually be more than a catchword.
“Engagement is challenging for any organization. I think doubly challenging for a Black organization because the issue has been trust that has eroded in our community,” Knight said.
Black Lives Matter works in complicated ways for a business group. “That support had been good and we’re glad to see that kind of support but at some point it starts to wean off,” Knight said.
“Life itself gets in the way,” said Woods, who’s active in East Hartford as a Democratic Party district chair and is treasurer of the East Hartford Black Caucus. “Systems were not built for Black people to succeed and that’s historical…We all get together and we all engage but we still have to go back to a system that wasn’t built for us to succeed.”
Obviously the hope is to change that and it happens in part through integration and in part through maintaining strong ties within the Black business community. The two are not at odds, Knight and Howard K. Hill, founder of the alliance, told me.
“The Black Business Alliance is part of the healing process of the Black community,” said Hill, who owns funeral homes in Bloomfield, Hartford and New Haven. “It helps the overall society when we are healed as a people.”
Hill is a key player in this; no longer on the alliance board, he’s on the board of the Minority Business Initiative and in November became chairman of the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce.
He sees the move to the mall as progress because of the exposure. “You never know who’s going to be walking through the mall. It could be kids or it could be a Fortune 500 chief executive, a small business owner or everything in between.”
That includes building trust, Knight said. The alliance planned a splashy event on Thursday but that’s been postponed.
“Hopefully if the variant comes down we will look at February, since it’s Black History Month,” she said.