As Taffany Britton and Nicole Burney have spent their days finding tenants to fill CBL spaces, they couldn’t help but notice that CBL didn’t have a lot of Black business owners at their home base mall: Chattanooga, Tennessee’s Hamilton Place. Britton works as senior specialty leasing manager at CBL’s Hamilton Place, and Burney serves as senior local leasing and advertising manager for the company, which is headquartered in Chattanooga. Both Britton and Burney have a passion for helping small business owners start and grow their businesses, and so they decided to do something about Hamilton Place’s shortage of Black-owned tenants in 2022.
“It was definitely a gap in the market,” Burney said. The issue wasn’t that Black entrepreneurs weren’t welcome. “We work with businesses from all ethnicities, creeds, colors, backgrounds and countries,” Britton said. And as she pointed out, both she and Burney are “African American professionals in the retail industry [who are] passionate about seeing African American businesses thrive within our space.”
They felt what might be keeping Black business owners from considering the property was a misconception about malls. “A lot of times, people think, especially in a successful mall like Hamilton Place, that they have to be The Gap or H&M to have a place,” Britton said. That simply isn’t true. As Britton said: “We work with small businesses. We welcome small businesses.” And like other landlords, CBL offers specialty leasing programs geared toward small business owners. In addition to the option of short-term leases, there are also opportunities for entrepreneurs to “pop up” for one-day events, like CBL’s successful Mother’s Day and Back to School expos. One of the problems, Burney realized, is that these specialty leasing programs “are a secret to a lot of people in this world. They don’t know that we have these programs to help small businesses come into the mall.”
And that was a big loss, not just for the Black-owned businesses, which could benefit from the traffic and exposure of a physical retail space, but also for consumers who hadn’t had the chance to know about some of the great local options and products available.
Britton and Burney wanted to engage more with Black-owned businesses and provide a gateway into the shopping center. Last January, the two came up with the idea to host a one-day Black Owned Business Expo at Hamilton Place. They thought a short community event would give Black entrepreneurs who might be hesitant about the mall an opportunity to engage with mall shoppers in real time. And it would give Burney and Britton a chance to educate entrepreneurs on the opportunities and programs CBL offers to help small business owners thrive at the mall. “We wanted to hopefully allow them to see that they, too, could be part of the mall environment and could come into the mall for a longer term,” Burney said.
Britton and Burney believed February, Black History Month, made the most sense. Chattanooga offers a lot of cultural and educational events every February to celebrate Black history, and the two thought hosting the expo during the last weekend of the month would be “a great culmination of everything that was going on in the city,” Britton said. They’d have less than a month to plan and execute, but they were determined, and after CBL’s corporate office agreed to the idea, “it was really all hands on deck,” Burney said.
No rookies to event planning, Burney and Britton knew the keys to a successful event: a variety of vendors with diverse product offerings and a community excited about supporting the event. They and the CBL team worked tirelessly on both goals.
Britton, Burney and CBL’s relationships with community partners gave them a head start. Immediately, the two reached out to the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce director of diversity and inclusion and to the head of a local incubator to help get the word out. “Both were excited to help,” Burney said. They also posted on social media and reached into their own personal networks to recruit entrepreneurs and develop community support. “We said: ‘Hey, we'll take care of you. We’ll hold your hand, we'll walk you through the process, whatever it takes to get you involved,’” Burney recalled.
Meanwhile, CBL launched a marketing campaign, using its website and social media channels to promote the event and the vendors that had signed up. The company also reached out to local media and got some early coverage.
To democratize the selection, CBL kept the application process as easy as possible. CBL’s marketing team created an online application for entrepreneurs to fill out basic information: name, type of business, description of services and contact info. And CBL charged businesses only $100 for each booth. “We really wanted to break down every barrier we thought vendors might face,” Britton said.
At the same time, Britton and Burney kept in mind that the expo was a mall event. As such, applicants were held to the same standard as CBL’s other tenants. Participants had to sign license agreements and show certificates of insurance, and Burney and Britton didn’t pre-commit vendors to any specific location. “We had to make sure that we were honoring proximity and co-tenancy restrictions,” Britton said.
Britton and Burney had no expectations for how many vendors would sign up, but they were encouraged by the interest from those like Brandy Madden, owner of Penny’s Lemonade, which sells 24 flavors of homemade lemonade and donates a portion of its profits to community organizations and families in need. Madden, who saw a post about the event on social media, was excited about the opportunity to attract new audiences, including customers with higher incomes. “My business kind of gets looked over,” said Madden, who valued CBL’s low, $100 rate for space in the expo. “We have a great product, but we just weren’t getting the exposure that we need.” She welcomed the opportunity to showcase her lemonade at a low cost among other Black small business owners. “We were hoping to run into all kinds of people from all over Tennessee that come to Chattanooga for the mall,” she said.
By the end of their 30 days of planning, Britton, Burney and the CBL team had recruited 20 entrepreneurs who sell products from chocolate to books to event-set decor.
Penny’s Lemonade owner Brandy Madden, also pictured at top, participated in the February 2022 Black Owned Business Expo and now is in talks with CBL about its pop-up specialty leasing program. She had thought the lemonade operation with a philanthropic mission could earn a little extra cash, but now, the opportunity to operate in the mall has sparked a bigger vision.
Burney and Britton woke up nervous on the day of the event, but they needn’t have. When the doors opened, community members came out in droves, drawn by their support for the Black-owned businesses and to the celebration of history, culture and commerce CBL had promoted. CBL had hired Black designers to decorate the mall, had hired popular musicians to play throughout the day and was handing out giveaways. Seeing a full, intergenerational crowd of shoppers coming together was just amazing, Britton said.
The vendors were overwhelmed by the support, too. “It was almost like an event more than just an expo,” said Ella Livingston, owner of Cocoa Asante, which sells artisan chocolate sourced from Ghana. “They had us all in the center of the mall, so people coming into the mall would say: ‘Oh hey, it looks like something special is going on there. Let me go check it out.’ It drove a lot of great traffic to us.” Livingston said cross-pollination from other vendors also helped. “Customers who came to shop with other vendors saw us [and bought our product]. And then the same thing: Other vendors who came to shop with us would stop by their booths.”
Hamilton Place’s second Black-Owned Business Expo will occur this Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023. Cocoa Asante owner Ella Livingston, pictured at the 2022 expo, hopes to double the surprising sales of last year’s expo.
Many of Hamilton Place’s long-term tenants benefited, too. “We looked at the traffic from that day and realized that it was comparable to an average Saturday in December,” Hamilton Place’s biggest traffic days, Britton said. Foot traffic during the Black Owned Business Expo also beat out the property’s second-biggest customer driver: sales tax-free weekends. And according to post-event surveys, many of Hamilton Place’s tenants, even those retailers who hadn’t necessarily been expecting it, noticed huge jumps in sales. “One of the big surprises we had was White House Black Market,” Britton said. “Who would have known that this [group of consumers] was a prime market for them?” Because of the expo, “they were introduced to new shoppers who hadn’t really known about them before.”
CBL realized it was onto something big, Burney said.
Since last year’s expo, four of the Black-owned businesses have joined CBL’s pop-up program, and Penny’s Lemonade is in talks to join the program. “CBL has opened a lot of doors of opportunity,” Madden said. “To be honest, I did not dream as big as others. I just thought: ‘OK, we can make lemonade and make a little extra money.’ I never imagined us actually turning this into a business. I didn't think we would ever be in a mall.”
But CBL has helped her through the process, she said. “They answer my phone calls and emails, and anything that I haven’t stayed on top of, they’ve reached out to ask if I needed help with it. They treat us like family,” she said. Partly as a result of CBL’s support, Madden’s “vision has grown bigger,” she said.
Stories like this prompted CBL to decide to expand the program. This year, three additional CBL properties — Waco, Texas’ Richland Mall, Pennsylvania’s Monroeville Mall and Winston-Salem, North Carolina’s Hanes Mall — hosted Black Owned Business Expos. And on Saturday, Feb. 25, Hamilton Place will host its second, which is shaping up to be even bigger than last year. About 30 vendors have signed up so far, more than half of which are repeat vendors.
With more time to plan and promote, both vendors and staff hope for an even bigger response this year. “We hit some high goals last year,” Cocoa Asante owner Livingston said, “and this year, I’m anticipating, hopefully, maybe even doubling what we did.”
By Rebecca Meiser
Contributor, Commerce + Communities Today