City’s inaugural Black expo leaves Minneapolis small business owners with losses

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Small business owners in Minneapolis say a million dollar city-run event meant to uplift Black-owned businesses ended up leaving them with losses.

The planning of Minneapolis’ inaugural ‘I Am My Ancestors Wildest Dreams’ Black business expo is under review by the City Auditor’s office and the primary planner — the director of the new Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Department, Tyeastia Green — no longer works for the City as of Tuesday.

The fallout comes after Councilmembers kicked in an extra roughly half a million dollars following a last minute request from Green a week before the event that several vendors said fell far below expectations.

Markella Smith owns The Dream Shop. The North Minneapolis boutique is chock full of art, jewelry and other distinctive items made mostly by neighbors nearby. On Feb. 25, she put up for display at the city expo.

“The expectation was to go in there and make a nice profit,” Smith said Wednesday.

That expectation faded fast day of as attendees merely trickled into the Minneapolis Convention Center, she recalled.

“At one point they said they were expecting 20,000 people. That definitely did not happen. As a vendor, I likely didn’t see over 100 people, and I would be very surprised if they said it was over 200 or 250,” Smith said. “It was a complete disappointment.”

When asked to quantify her losses, Smith said, “Oh, well over $2,000.”

Vendors paid for parking and for food at the Convention Center over the course of a more than 12-hour event, Smith added.

“The responsibility boils down to, where did you market the event? How come nobody knew about it?” she continued.

Planning was placed on Green’s shoulders as the head of the Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Department. The City initially set aside $450,000 for the first-time event. Then, a week before the expo, councilmembers granted Green’s request to double the budget, pulling $290,000 from federal COVID-19 relief money and another $145,000 from the City’s contingency fund which is set aside for “unforeseen” or “urgent” needs.

Councilmembers had several questions about the need for that extra nearly half a million dollars and where it was pulled from, but in the end, there was a commitment to keep the expo on the calendar, Vice President Linea Palmisano said in an interview Wednesday.

“On the back end here, we really do need to audit how taxpayer dollars were spent and see what we’ve learned from this in terms of how we would do such a thing in the future,” she said.

Smith seconded the call to audit the event.

“We want answers. Where did this half a million go?” she said. “We also really, in reality, want and deserve compensation.”

At least some of the money was sent to companies outside of the city, several came from out of state, several vendors have confirmed.

KB Brown owns Minneapolis print shop Wolfpack Promotionals. City staff reached out to him a week before the expo to get a quote for promotional swag, he said Wednesday.

Just hours later, “They told us ‘We’re gonna go with another shop,'” he said.

It turned out another staff member had already offered the contract to a St. Paul shop.

“It pisses me off,” he said. “It’s not the first time that we’ve lost a city contract to a business in St. Paul, a business in Kansas City.”

When asked if he had anything else to add, Brown said, “It’s not about Tyeastia. She’s literally is a cog in the wheel. This is about a larger issue that has been systemically happening, that we’ve been actually asking to get fixed for a long time.”

Green did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.