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Market molds entrepreneurs

By Matthew Artz, Special to the Daily Planet
Monday June 03, 2002

Just two blocks from the Fourth Street retail promenade, the operators of Berkeley’s newest monthly market have aspirations of doing more than just giving a space for local craftspeople to sell their goods. 

They want to give them the tools to be successful business people. 

The West Berkeley Open Air Market, in its second year, located in a parking lot below the Interstate 80 overpass at University Avenue, is organized by the West Berkeley Neighborhood Development Corp. The market is just one part of their effort to empower the residents of their neighborhood and greater Berkeley. 

“I don’t see this as just another marketplace but as a place to exchange ideas,” said Willie Phillips, president of the 10-year-old corporation, which receives funding from the city of Berkeley and private foundations.  

The market fosters cooperation between established vendors and part-time craftspeople who want to go into business for themselves. 

“It’s a super good idea. I try to get people into this business all the time,” said Michael Brady, a jewelry vendor for 20 years. But Brady admits that artisans starting out face greater obstacles than he did. 

“Twenty years ago this area was wide open. Now if you go to K-Mart, they have the same type of stuff that I sell. To start out now it’s tougher for sure,” he explained. 

For aspiring entrepreneurs in West Berkeley the obstacles are numerous. “People like this are invisible to banks and the Small Business Authority,” said Betsy Morris, the corporation’s secretary. “A lot of people here don’t have homes, and if you don’t own your home, you have [any] capital and can’t get money.” 

In addition to financial concerns, Phillips notes that new vendors also need business training and connections in order to have the chance to be successful. 

To help them in their endeavors, the corporation holds business training workshops. The programs are free, and offer interested parties counseling from successful vendors and small business people as well as access to agencies and organizations that provide financial, legal and logistical assistance. 

According to Morris, the country’s changing economy makes this program especially vital to local residents. “The whole economy is moving to self-employment. This is a pre-emptive effort for the community,” Morris said. 

For Phillips, who has lived in West Berkeley for 47 years, promoting economic self-sufficiency is not just attacking an isolated issue, it’s fighting a core ailment that has afflicted his neighborhood for years. 

“It’s really important to have creative ways to deal with the problems. Many people don’t connect the crime to economic issues,” said Phillips, who noted that the amount of money Berkeley allocates for economic development is minuscule in comparison with that earmarked for public safety. 

“We are trying to make that link, and create opportunity for people,” said Phillips. 

According to Bruce Williams, the market’s manager, there is already a success story. Last year an aspiring silk maker, set up shop at the market and took the seminar. He now owns his own shop in Oakland. 

Some vendors at Sunday’s market hoped that they too could make the transition to full-time businessperson. “I’d definitely be interested,” said Rhonda Hartzell a jewelry maker. “I think it would be a great thing to do.”