It does not take a lot of scrutinizing to notice that the Killeen-Fort Hood area has an above-average presence of minority-owned small businesses.
Casual observers would probably notice it on their first day in town. And while other areas in Central Texas are struggling to attract African-American talent to their city, Killeen-Fort Hood is way ahead of the curve when it comes to supporting African-American-owned small businesses.
The military is naturally the base for this renaissance, but there is much more to it than that.
A look at the numbers is an obvious place to start. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, African-Americans comprise 13.6 percent of the population in the United States. The figure for Texas is just under 12 percent.
The African-American population of Travis County, home of Austin, is just under 9 percent. Meanwhile, African-Americans make up more than 21 percent of the population in Bell County and just under 16 percent in Coryell County.
But these numbers only prove that the Killeen-Fort Hood area is home to many African-Americans. They don’t fully explain why the area seems to boast far more African-American-owned small businesses than most cities in the country.
Laveda Brown, president and CEO of the African-American Chamber of Commerce in Waco, might have more insight on the topic than anybody else. Before taking over her responsibilities with the chamber in 2007, Brown spent 11½ years working at McLennan Community College’s Small Business Development Center. During those years, she spent one day a week counseling small businesses in the Killeen-Fort Hood area.
“During that time, I would say approximately 40 percent of the people I worked with down there were African-American,” Brown said. “One of the good things about Killeen is that the people are open minded.”
Part of all sectors
African-Americans are a big part of every small-business sector in Killeen. Professional industries and the service industries both have a large African-American presence. Many local micro-entrepreneurs credit the Army for creating an atmosphere conducive to people of all backgrounds.
“First of all, I would like to stress that I am here to provide a great service to the entire community, not just African-Americans,” said Arthur Cobb, owner of Cobb Insurance Agency in Killeen. “But it isn’t a perfect world, and it is a reality that if I were in a town where the percentage of African-Americans was less, I would probably have a tougher time.”
Cobb spent 26 years in the Army before retiring and opening his insurance agency. He said the Army exposes soldiers to so many different cultures so quickly, it becomes easier for soldiers to work well with people from any culture when they leave the Army.
“You could say the Army is the great equalizer,” Cobb said.
Of course, there are plenty of material reasons former soldiers want to stay in Killeen after they retire. And because a high percentage of former soldiers are African-American, this naturally leads to a healthy representation in the business community.
“There are a lot of African-American soldiers who retire in the upper-echelon of the Army as officers,” said Navy veteran and restaurant owner Mechelle Davies. “They stay here after they retire because the benefits are very good. You have access to the commissary. You have access to great health care. This is a military community, and people understand what it means to have served, and they respect it. A lot of black people feel they have a chance to do the things they dreamed of doing in this community.”
Copperas Cove-based private investigator Tremell Pittman is one of those people. He said that even being conscious that he is an “African-American business owner” is a double-edged sword. On one hand, he does not want to label himself in a way that could isolate his business. On the other hand, he cannot help but be proud of the fact.
“My family did not necessarily have fair opportunities in the past to build a business, buy land and a lot of other things we now take for granted,” he said. “My family wasn’t necessarily able to save up a nest egg to hand down to the next generation. That is a cycle I want to break for my three sons, and I am personally proud that I am able to do that.”
TaNeika Driver, president of the NAACP Killeen Branch, said Pittman’s sentiments exemplify exactly why she thinks it is OK for somebody to recognize the importance of being an African-American business leader without isolating any other part of the community.
“It’s not just to group us all together,” Driver said. “It has to do with heritage and culture. We’re not setting ourselves apart. Twenty years ago, you didn’t see this many successful African-Americans in the area. Fifty years ago, we weren’t allowed to even enter certain parts of the community. It’s good to see that evolve.
“If you just drive around and look at how many African-American-owned businesses we have now, it truly amazes you,” she added.
John Crutchfield, president and CEO of the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce, said the military obviously has a huge impact on the demographic makeup of the local community. But he also said community support for all small-business owners in Killeen-Fort Hood is an example of high tides raising all ships.
“In that regard, I think we are different from a lot of places,” Crutchfield said. “A lot of places say they offer support to small businesses, but they just say that. We actually do it. As a community, we do a good job of providing support to small businesses.”