This past weekend, hundreds of New Haven store owners crowded the Immanuel Baptist Church to rally support for their local ventures.
The Connecticut Black Expo, the largest African-American trade show in the country, offered an opportunity for local African Americans to showcase their businesses to the Elm City community — businesses that do not often receive significant publicity and struggle to compete with the major chains in the area, according to the event’s CEO Maurice Smith.
The annual expo, which began in New York City in the mid-1970s, has now expanded to cities in over 20 different states, including Connecticut. While the expo has stopped in several different cities throughout the Constitution State, it has rooted itself in the Elm City for the past few years.
This year’s expo featured roughly 30 different vendors and offered free admission to the public — an attempt by the organization to attract more attendees than in previous years. With over 1,000 people in attendance and an increase in prospective sponsors for future years, organizers viewed the expo as a strong success.
“I would say on a scale of one to 10, this was an 11,” Smith said. “We had full capacity — lines everywhere.”
Each vendor, Smith explained, was provided a table, but the responsibility fell on the individual businesses to personalize them.
Several store owners in attendance said they thought the expo would positively impact their business in the future.
“Most people haven’t heard of my business,” Sophia Simmons, owner of Stella and Dot said. “Hopefully, now with the expo, I’ll get some more traffic on my website and some money my way.”
Simmons had several examples of her business’s jewelry, handbags and scarves on display.
In addition to vendors, various community groups put on performances, including fashion shows and dance pieces, throughout the day.
In its second stint at the event, Connecticut Fashion Week put on a fashion show, one of the event’s main performances.
“We had such a great experience last year, that I asked if we could do it again,” Corrine Thomas, founder of Connecticut Fashion Week, said. “The audience was great, and the organizers were very nice.”
The expo, Thomas said, gives her new models a chance to practice in front of a crowd before the actual Connecticut Fashion Week fashion show. Thomas added that she thought it would be the perfect opportunity to showcase to the community what Connecticut Fashion Week really is — an important step to take because they pride themselves in being a community-based company.
Even though the expo offers numerous benefits to the African-American community in New Haven, the expo organizers faced several obstacles in their quest to host the event on an annual basis.
Funding for the program, for example, has always been a significant issue, according to Smith.
“We need to get some sponsors to help pay the bills,” Smith said. “The majority of the funding comes from myself, and primarily it comes out of my own pocket.”
Smith added that the purpose of the event is not to gain profit, but to offset expenses. With no money coming in besides his own, it’s hard to secure a venue for the event, he said. This year, a local church offered their space at a good rental price, which significantly lowered costs and allowed organizers to retract an admission fee featured in years’ past.
Last year, the organization charged $10, which Smith said was not affordable for many in the community. By offering free admission this year, the event attracted a much larger crowd.
An increased number of attendees brought the event to the attention of George Clarke, president of the Greater New Haven Business and Professional Association. Clarke was impressed by the large turnout and expressed interest in becoming a sponsor for next year’s event, according to Smith.
Although previously unsure if he would be organizing the event again next year, Smith said that the support for this year’s event has encouraged him to do so.
Last year’s expo was held at the Floyd Little Athletic Center in New Haven.