Before relocating to Columbus four years ago, Ramon and Bianca Brown knew nothing about the city.

But Bianca had just finished law school and landed a job at the local Department of Homeland Security. So the couple moved from Charlotte, N.C., to Columbus, where they found a strong network of young black professionals who welcomed them with open arms.

Now, the Browns are local entrepreneurs with two thriving businesses — the De La Pop gourmet popcorn shop located in the Landings and CIRCA Craft Cocktail and Lounge on Front Avenue.

“We were expecting to be out of here in a year and half,” said Ramon, who lives with his now-pregnant wife in Green Island. “But we made some friends, got involved in some groups, and that has made the experience worthwhile for us.”

Ramon, 32, and Bianca, 34, represent a growing trend in Columbus, as black professionals and business owners are becoming ubiquitous at local hospitals, shopping centers, corporate boardrooms and upscale residential neighborhoods, boosting the percentage of upper-income black households in the community.

The Columbus metropolitan area is now among the nation’s top 10 metro areas for black households making $100,000 or more, according to a 2015 African-American Consumer Report published by the Nielsen Corporation. The report is titled “Increasingly Affluent, Educated and Diverse — African American Consumers: The Untold Story.” It lists the percentage of black households making $100,000 or more in Columbus at 3 percent.

Brian Anderson, president and CEO of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber found a similar statistic while conducting a recent comparative assessment as part of a Regional Prosperity Initiative. It was discovered in a NerdWallet report that ranked Columbus as the top city for black entrepreneurs.

Anderson said efforts by local leaders such as Dr. Bob Wright, who recently held a symposium featuring prominent black business leaders from across the country, have helped make business opportunities more accessible to people of different backgrounds.

“I think it speaks loudly for our community that people are allowed to succeed and accomplish based on their efforts without artificial barriers, to a degree,” he said.

Yet there’s much more that needs to be done to ensure that every citizen has access to opportunities to grow income and wealth, Anderson cautioned, explaining that half of the households in Muscogee County live on an income of $50,000 or less.

“So with half of our population we have a lot of work to do to help with education attainment and opportunities to high-paying and high quality jobs,” he said. “I’m pleased that we look good in one respect, but we have more work to do in uplifting everybody.”

Though the Browns and many local black professionals are native to the South, the growth of higher-income black households living in the area is being fueled by a return of blacks to the South over the past few decades, according to the Nielsen report. Since 2000, a shift has occurred in cities with the highest percentage of upper-income black households, with the Columbus, Augusta-Aiken and Baton Rouge, La., metro areas replacing traditional black strongholds such as Detroit and Chicago.

The top metro area in the U.S. for black households earning $100,000 or more nationwide is now Washington, D.C., at a penetration rate of 7.2 percent, followed by Baltimore, Md. (5.1), Norfolk, Va. (3.9), and Atlanta (3.6).

Cheryl Pearson-McNeil is Nielsen’s senior vice president of U.S. Strategic Community Alliances and Consumer Engagement. She said researchers compiled the data from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Census, the American Community Survey and data from federal and state agencies.

Pearson-McNeil referred to a 2013 Nielsen African-American Consumer study that found blacks attaining higher levels of education. So it’s not surprising that Southern cities are seeing more affluent black households, she said.

“We’ve been tracking the reverse migration back to the South for a while,” she said. “In 2013, our African American Consumer Report highlighted the fact that 50 percent of blacks lived in the South. It wasn’t just people retiring and returning to the South. It’s younger and more educated black professionals who are starting to make the South their homes.”

Dr. Vincent Naman, a local plastic surgeon who grew up in New York, made that decision 21 years ago. After completing his residency at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, he was looking for some place to start a practice and decided to head South. At the time, he knew nothing about the region. So he created a spreadsheet of Southern cities.

“Columbus just met the demographics,” he said. “It was the right size, the right need, the right income range to give me a chance to come here and be successful. It just had the right numbers.”

Naman said he also sees a lot of military people choosing to retire in Columbus and native young professionals coming back. He said bigger cities like Detroit and Chicago may be losing black residents because people want to get away from the hustle and bustle. With advanced technology, they no longer have to live in big cities to be connected to the rest of the world.

Columbus has an abundance of opportunities relative to other cities because it’s still small enough for people to come and find a niche, he said.

“We certainly see it in the medical field,” he said. “A lot of young black doctors are here who would probably fall into that demographic. The medical field is an area that’s still in need. It’s also about a lot of the amenities — proximity to Atlanta, to an international airport, proximity to the beach. I think those are some of the drivers.”

Some black professionals have also been recruited by Aflac and other companies. Jon Sullivan, an Aflac company spokesman, said the company works with organizations like The LAGRANT Foundation to recruit young minority students who have excelled in college and are looking for entry level positions.

“That said, we don’t specifically recruit based on race,” he said. “However, we do understand the value of diversity in what has become a very diverse marketplace. We certainly want minorities to apply to work at Aflac, including African-Americans, but our focus is on bringing the best, most qualified person to each and every position.”

Sullivan said Aflac’s workforce is about 40 percent minority — 35 percent African American and 67 percent women. Roughly 22 percent of the company’s officers are minorities and 11 percent African American.

“We have seen an increase at the highest levels, especially with Audrey Tillman recently being promoted to General Counsel and Teresa White elevated to president of Aflac U.S.,” Sullivan wrote in the email. “Both are African-American women who came to Aflac more than a decade ago and worked their way up to these high-level positions. We have several African Americans at the senior vice president level and at the vice president level, as well, including the president of Communicorp and the senior vice president of Internal Operations.

“The key, as we see it, is to hire good people, regardless of race, and then nurture their careers so that they can someday assume the mantle of leadership.”

While the percentage of black professionals may be increasing, Anderson said the Regional Prosperity Initiative Assessment found that Columbus remains stagnant when it comes to people migrating from other places.

“I don’t know about the subset of those demographics, but I do know that we’ve not had the in-migration numbers that other cities we’re benchmarking against have enjoyed,” he said. “Whether it’s professionals or college students, we’re losing more population to other places than are coming in to our region. Our thoughts on that are that we’re not marketing the region as effectively as we could, especially when it comes to millennials and young talent coming out of colleges and universities.

“That will be one of our priority areas, getting our story out on college campuses and universities to say, ‘Hey, Columbus is a great place to move to,'” he added. “Diversity is a plus for us, and we want to recruit all walks of life and all ethnicities. So that will be a priority for us.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter

Top 10

Here are the top 10 metro areas for black households earning $100,000 or more nationwide:

1. Washington, D.C.: penetration rate of 7.2 percent

2. Baltimore, Md.: 5.1 percent

3. Norfolk, Va.: 3.9 percent

4. Atlanta, Ga.: 3.6 percent

5. Richmond-Petersburg, Va.: 3.5 percent

6. Baton Rouge, La.: 3.4 percent

7. Memphis, Tenn.: 3.4 percent

8. New York, N.Y.: 3.1 percent

9. Columbus, Ga.: 3.0 percent

10. Augusta, Ga.-Aiken, S.C.: 2.9 percent

Source: 2015 African-American Consumer Report published by the Nielsen Corporation

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