One of the organizations I really appreciate is Strong Towns. Led by Chuck Marohn, an engineer by trade but a small-town lover at heart, this group blogs, speaks and produces podcasts about less conventional ways to grow your community. To define “conventional”—many believe that big factories at the edge of town, new subdivisions and new roads/bridges/intersections are the keys to revitalization. There are certainly benefits to these activities and no economic developer I know would turn them away. But, in searching for innovative and less expensive incremental ways to move the needle, I always come back to the topic of a Strong Towns’ blog: “How to Encourage Entrepreneurship in Your Town” by Rachel Quednau, 4/20/16.
Why should the public sector should support these efforts? For starters, small businesses (as defined by the SBA, depending on the industry, by revenues or employees) comprise 89.6% of all businesses in the United States. And, 23 million businesses employ just the owner. When you shop local, more than 45% of your dollars are recycled back into the community (compared to just 14% for “big box stores”), supporting your neighbors and friends. And, not least, many people choose to visit or live in places where there are more local establishments, adding to a vibrant economy.
Further, as I read the post, I was reminded of the concept of economic gardening. Now, as a recognized “black thumb” when it comes to keeping anything other than a philodendron alive, I’m really the last person to talk about gardening. I do appreciate the idea, though—particularly the reality that this strategy takes time to see results. And, so does cultivating an entrepreneurship ecosystem where none existed before. Check out Ms. Quednau’s article for some practical steps. To start with, there are many resources available in the local library and many communities have access to the Small Business Development Center network, a federally funded business assistance program through the Small Business Administration. In addition, the local Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Corporation or community college might provide some classes about growing a new business.
Another point that makes sense about economic gardening is that the “sweet spot” is in providing the most resources to businesses that are one to three years old, particularly those who might produce high-wage jobs. These growth businesses may be more firmly rooted and have made it through the first trials and have refined their markets and products. It takes time to identify these businesses and develop relationships. My friends who do actually garden tell me that the second, third, and fourth year crop is worth the wait.
(additional detail and resources are in this post on the ICMA website)