For Atlanta entrepreneurs, how to vote comes down to more than 'How's business?'


Ryan Wilson is having a good year.

After having wrested back control of his members-only networking space in December, he said the Gathering Spot’s revenue has hit $20 million and keeps growing. The Atlanta-based company is now looking to open a fourth location, in Houston, by next year.

But like many small-business owners in Georgia’s capital, where President Joe Biden and Donald Trump will meet Thursday for their first debate of the 2024 race, Wilson said his priorities as a voter go beyond his bottom line.

He applauds the Biden administration’s efforts to extend federal student loan relief and access to capital to entrepreneurs, for example. “Those are the sorts of things that move the needle” for the business community overall, said Wilson, who’s hosting a debate watch party at the Gathering Spot on Thursday night.

Ryan Wilson, owner of Gathering Spot, in Atlanta, on June 26, 2024. (Ari Skin for NBC News)Ryan Wilson, owner of Gathering Spot, in Atlanta, on June 26, 2024. (Ari Skin for NBC News)

Ryan Wilson, owner of Gathering Spot, in Atlanta, on June 26, 2024. (Ari Skin for NBC News)

Today, Trump leads Biden in Georgia by 43% to 38%, according to a new Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey of likely voters, an edge just outside its 3.1% margin of error. The swing state’s robust but uneven economic recovery makes it a Rorschach test for residents heading to the polls this fall — creating an opening for both campaigns’ messaging.Georgia is in the midst of a startup boom. Business formation peaked at 320,000 new filings in 2021, during the depths of the pandemic, and it has held at near-record levels since. The state’s business climate, with its generous tax breaks for the entertainment industry and a corporate ecosystem anchored by Atlanta stalwarts Coca-Cola and Home Depot, has been ranked first in the country by Area Development magazine each of the last 10 years.

Wilson, 34, plans to vote for Biden, but he thinks the president should do more to tout entrepreneurial provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, among other policies. “The legislation happened. It’s meaningful,” he said.

The Gathering Spot, Ryan Wilson's members-only networking space (Ari Skin for NBC News)The Gathering Spot, Ryan Wilson's members-only networking space (Ari Skin for NBC News)

The Gathering Spot, Ryan Wilson’s members-only networking space (Ari Skin for NBC News)

Still, he worries that “we’re not having this conversation rooted in what should be commonly accessible facts,” citing disinformation that the White House has so far held off on confronting head-on.Not everyone agrees.

“I don’t like what Biden is doing,” said Deonte Atkins, 37, owner of Za’Acai Cafe in Midtown Atlanta, which he opened just six months ago. “Trump might be divisive and divide the city, but Joe Biden divided the world.”Atkins is also seeing strong business. Sales have nearly doubled to “six figures,” he said, and he’s already building a pizza joint and speakeasy-style event space adjoining the acai bowl spot.

But Atkins attributes his successes more to Atlanta’s entrepreneurial scene than to any federal policy, and he’s more focused on geopolitical issues anyway. After he and his fiancée welcomed a baby in March, he worries about U.S. involvement in Ukraine or Israel.

Deonte Atkins, owner of Za’Açai Cafe in Midtown Atlanta, on June 26, 2024. (Ari Skin for NBC News)Deonte Atkins, owner of Za’Açai Cafe in Midtown Atlanta, on June 26, 2024. (Ari Skin for NBC News)

Deonte Atkins, owner of Za’Açai Cafe in Midtown Atlanta, on June 26, 2024. (Ari Skin for NBC News)

“It really boils down to who can help you accomplish your goals,” he said, adding, “For me as an entrepreneur, I want to not experience a war for me or my kids.”Both campaigns are working to win over Black voters like Wilson and Atkins, particularly in Georgia, whose 16 electoral votes are critical in most paths to victory.

“I’m not saying he’s racist; I’m not saying he’s not,” Atkins said of Trump, who has accused immigrants of “poisoning the blood of our country” and said Black voters relate to him because he has been “discriminated against” by the criminal justice system, most recently citing his historic conviction in New York last month.

Atkins echoed that view. As a Black man with a felony record himself, he said, “they’ve been doing that to us for years.” While Wilson finds many of Trump’s overtures to Black voters “insulting,” Atkins so far sees the Republican as the lesser of “two evils.”

A woman with her dog in a park in Atlanta, on June 26, 2024. (Ari Skin for NBC News)A woman with her dog in a park in Atlanta, on June 26, 2024. (Ari Skin for NBC News)

A woman with her dog in a park in Atlanta, on June 26, 2024. (Ari Skin for NBC News)

Building in Atlanta (Ari Skin for NBC News)Building in Atlanta (Ari Skin for NBC News)

Building in Atlanta (Ari Skin for NBC News)

Before 2020, a Democratic presidential candidate hadn’t won Georgia since Southerner Bill Clinton clinched it in 1992. Biden’s win there four years ago, followed by victories by Sens. Rafael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, was seen as proof of shifting political tides across the South.To Trump and the GOP, losing Georgia after having won it by 5 percentage points in 2016 stung, and his efforts to change the outcome there are at the center of a court case in Atlanta’s Fulton County that’s set to stretch beyond the 2024 vote.

Surveys have found many of the Georgians who helped put Biden in office are disappointed with what they see as promises he and his party didn’t keep, including on voting rights and child care affordability. But the outcome in the state will depend on factors that polls struggle to measure, like consumer sentiment, voter outreach to Spanish-speaking communities and whether the state’s strict six-week abortion ban is upheld in court.“Social issues are business issues,” said Molly Dickinson, founder of Banner Day, a branding agency that works closely with “traditionally underserved” entrepreneurs.

Dickinson, 38, is backing Democrats this year partly out of concern for reproductive rights.

Molly Dickinson, founder of Banner Day, a branding agency (Ari Skin for NBC News)Molly Dickinson, founder of Banner Day, a branding agency (Ari Skin for NBC News)

Molly Dickinson, founder of Banner Day, a branding agency (Ari Skin for NBC News)

“If I have an unwanted pregnancy, as an owner, that’s going to drastically change how I can work in my business,” she said of Georgia’s abortion restrictions. “Small-business owners make business decisions based on how comfortable they feel in their home lives and in their everyday lives.”Health care in general is a big issue in her circle. “When you run a small business, it often doesn’t run without you,” she said. “One sickness is enough to shut out a business when you’re small.”

Dickinson added that many of her clients can’t afford more than “a bare minimum plan” for employees’ health insurance and that some would-be founders “won’t even start their businesses for that reason.”

For Rich Chey, a bigger drag on business is simply the crush of competitors a 510,000-resident city center whose population jumped by 12,000 from July 2022 to the same month last year, according to a census analysis released last month.“There’s a ton of operators out there,” said Chey, 59, who owns a pair of restaurants, Doc Chey’s Noodle House and Osteria 832.

Rich Chey, owner of a noodle shop and an Italian restaurant, in Atlanta, on June 26, 2024. (Ari Skin for NBC News)Rich Chey, owner of a noodle shop and an Italian restaurant, in Atlanta, on June 26, 2024. (Ari Skin for NBC News)

Rich Chey, owner of a noodle shop and an Italian restaurant, in Atlanta, on June 26, 2024. (Ari Skin for NBC News)

He cited a boom in multifamily residential construction that has brought a flurry of new storefronts to the city. Many of the commercial tenants in those new spaces may never be profitable, Chey said, but “even if a restaurant opens a half a mile away, and even if they take five or 10 customers from my business … all of a sudden it’s death by a thousand cuts.”“Business has been OK,” Chey said, but food and labor costs have taken a toll. “We’re just not able to raise menu prices at the same rate that the inputs are going up,” he said, estimating that his profit margins have shrunk by 50% in the last few years.

Doc Chey's Noodle House, one of Rich Chey's restaurants in Atlanta (Ari Skin for NBC News)Doc Chey's Noodle House, one of Rich Chey's restaurants in Atlanta (Ari Skin for NBC News)

Doc Chey’s Noodle House, one of Rich Chey’s restaurants in Atlanta (Ari Skin for NBC News)

Chey, a registered independent, declined to say how he plans to vote this fall. But he’s intrigued by Trump’s proposal to eliminate taxes on tips and frustrated by what he sees as regulatory requirements that “make it more difficult for us to run a business.”At the same time, Chey is skeptical of “protective barriers” to prop up domestic firms, which both candidates support in different ways but Trump wants to ramp up dramatically.

“I’m probably more of a capitalist than I am anti-capitalist,” he said.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com



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