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UPDATED: Alexandria BIPOC-focused grant program delayed by lawsuit from local engineering firm

Black-owned businesses in Alexandria (image via Visit Alexandria)

Updated at 2 p.m. — A lawsuit challenging a city-run grant program benefiting entrepreneurs of color is delaying its launch.

The City of Alexandria announced the delay of the grant program benefiting Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) on social media, saying the launch has been postponed while the city reviews the lawsuit.

Engineering firm Tridentis, LLC filed the suit (PDF file) in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia on Jan. 22. The Alexandria-based firm says that the program is “blatantly illegal” and is seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to bar the city from opening the program’s application period on Jan. 26.

“To be eligible for the program, a business must demonstrate that its owners are at least 51% black, indigenous, or people of color,” Tridentis said in its court filing. “These BIPOC owners must come from one of four groups–Black or African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, or Indigenous or Native American. In other words, no whites allowed.”

Tridentis continued, “This program is blatantly illegal. The Equal Protection Clause prohibits Alexandria from discriminating based on race, and this express racial exclusion cannot possibly satisfy strict scrutiny. Plaintiff, a business in Alexandria who wants to apply for the program but is excluded because its owner is the wrong race, is entitled to relief.”

Tridentis, which is being represented by Bryan Kipp Weir, is alleging that the city is violating due process and equal protection. The company is asking for the following:

  • A declaratory judgment that (the city’s) Defendant’s BIPOC Small Business Grant Program violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
  • A temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction barring Defendant from opening the application period, closing the application period, selecting grant recipients, or enforcing its racially discriminatory eligibility criteria for the BIPOC Small Business Grant Program.
  • A permanent injunction barring Defendant from enforcing its racially discriminatory eligibility criteria for the program.
  • Nominal damages.
  • Reasonable costs and expenses of this action, including attorneys’ fees, under 42 U.S.C. §1988 and any other applicable laws.
  • And all other relief that Tridentis is entitled to.

The grant website said the city was served with a lawsuit yesterday:

NOTICE: On January 23, 2023, the City was served with a lawsuit challenging the BIPOC Small Business Grant Program. Applications were set to open on January 26; however, we are postponing the application process while we review the lawsuit. Despite this delay, the City remains committed to supporting our minority small business community and promoting equity for all. Please send all inquiries to [email protected].

The city has been set to release applications on Thursday, Jan. 26. The grant was approved by the City Council in October, along with funding meant to boost the voices of minority business owners in discussions of city policy.

The purpose of the grant was to support Black-owned businesses disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Nationwide, Black-owned businesses saw a 28% earnings decrease in 2020 compared to a 15% drop for White-owned businesses and a 17% overall decline, Bloomberg reported.

“While many businesses have struggled and are still recovering in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, these hardships are particularly felt by Black, Indigenous and people of color (“BIPOC”) owned businesses due to structural barriers and discriminatory financial lending practices,” the city said in a release.

James Cullum and Vernon Miles contributed to this story