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Black Entrepreneurs Find Hope With New BeltLine Initiative

Marketplace program puts focus on and resources behind minority-owned businesses in the metro area.

Five new Black-owned businesses are coming to the Atlanta BeltLine, courtesy of an incubator program aimed at supporting small minority-owned businesses in metro Atlanta. (Erin Sintos/Courtesy of the Atlanta BeltLine)

Ashley Carlton started his gourmet cookie and ice cream business, Not As Famous Cookie Company, seven years ago as a mobile food truck, with the mission of serving unique and decadent treats. 

At the time, Carlton was traveling across metro Atlanta to different festivals, catering to customers on the go. He realized that his customers wanted a physical location to indulge in his ever-changing cycle of seasonal and year-round flavors, like the peach cobbler and lemon blueberry cookies, on a more consistent basis. And out of that need came his first brick-and-mortar storefront, located in Smyrna.

“Once I got the storefront up and running, I was able to expand my staff to 12 employees and operate both our physical location and our food trucks,” Carlton said.

Now, Carlton is one of five business owners who will set up shop in the inaugural Beltline Marketplace, a collaboration between Atlanta BeltLine Inc. and The Village Market aimed at providing new and affordable commercial opportunities to local Black and minority enterprise Atlanta’s growing small-business sector. 

At the ribbon-cutting introducing Cococakes by Coco, Good As Burgers, Grady Baby Company & Apparel, Not as Famous Cookie Company, and PinkPothos on Wednesday, Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said that the introduction of the partnership is prioritizing minority small-business growth.

“This is a city of opportunities,” Dickens said. “Being able to provide this level of support to entrepreneurs who are at the heart of Atlanta’s economy is something I am very proud of.”

The pilot program, which will feature two hubs on both the Eastside and Westside trails, is a push from the BeltLine to connect underserved communities with commerce and development opportunities, according to BeltLine President and CEO Clyde Higgs.

“The development of this project was intentional,” Higgs said. “Over the last 30 months, this has perhaps been our best time for the BeltLine’s growth.”

Higgs says that the group, along with the $750,000 grant from the Kendeda Fund used to support the incubator program, has already raised $300 million to utilize for future endeavors, including finishing the BeltLine and pushing forward on its affordable housing development initiative

“We tapped folks from The Village Market and other business resources in the city to judge who had the best opportunity for success and who had the best vision for us to help,” Higgs said. 

Higgs says that BeltLine is offering the new storefront owners custom-made containers that have been revamped to house food and soft goods. The spaces are priced below-market rental rates, and support will be provided as the owners move in and adjust to their new digs.

“We have the ability to cut their capital cost by 50% to provide low operating costs,” Higgs said. “We also ensure that they have access to legal help. We’re trying to think holistically, beyond the infrastructure, of ways that we can ensure that minority groups, people of color, can have easy and affordable access and launch with the best chance at success.”

Nicole McDonald, operating officer at Cococakes by Coco, says having access to the larger Black community while having the opportunity to create jobs along the BeltLine has been a humbling experience. McDonald jokes that she’s the business and her husband, Corey, is the baker. The couple have been in business since 1996, and have operated their small bakery out of Tucker for the past seven years.

“A lot of customers in this community want to make it out to Tucker. … This is a more centralized location,” McDonald said. “Our first staff for the BeltLine are young Black men, so being able to create job security for our community is truly a blessing.”

Higgs says that through more pushes for economic equity and backing from the community, he believes that supporting Black-owned businesses will help commercial enterprises see the reasoning as to why the group decided to create the hub.

“If you are really serious about equity, then you need to be intentional about making decisions and giving opportunities to businesses of color,” he said.

Carlton and McDonald say their shops are preparing to open and take on the uncertain but exciting days to come. Trusting in and serving a community that has uplifted them up during times of small-business woes is what motivates them.

“It’s really come full circle when I think about how all this started,” Carlton said. “Even though times were tough, the future is always bright, and I can’t wait to see my business continue to grow and reach a new part of Atlanta.”