A thriving small business sector leads to more job growth, less inequality, higher median incomes, and stronger social bonds in your community. Yet aspiring entrepreneurs don’t have it easy. The cost of leasing commercial space is soaring in many cities, loans are hard to get, zoning rules often work against local businesses, and competition from Amazon is on the rise.
To help city leaders address these challenges, ILSR organized and moderated a workshop at the City Summit 2017 conference put on by the National League of Cities in November.
This lively and popular session featured a panel of city leaders from Grand Rapids, Mich., Portland, Ore., and Phoenix. Each talked about making local, independent businesses a centerpiece of their economic strategy, and outlined concrete policies and initiatives their cities have implemented to do so.
Mayor Rosalynn Bliss of Grand Rapids discussed why she believes growing local businesses is a more effective approach to economic development than trying to recruit outside corporations. She shared insights on how to bring other community leaders on board, and then offered details of several of her initiatives, including support for 5×5, a new source of microfinance for startups; supportive networks for Latino and African-American entrepreneurs; steps to revise regulations that impede small businesses, such as lifting restrictions on food trucks; and working closely with Local First, a Grand Rapids-based organization dedicated to building an economy grounded in local ownership.
Tory Campbell of Prosper Portland, the city’s economic development agency, discussed how Portland has restructured its economic development programs to focus on growing local businesses from the bottom up. Prosper Portland sees creating an equitable economy as central to its mission and has pioneered a portfolio of programs that support businesses owned by women and people of color. In addition to describing the history of the city’s conversion to this approach, and outlining some of these programs, Tory shared details about Mercatus, an online platform created by the city that highlights entrepreneurs of color through storytelling and a comprehensive directory.
Kimber Lanning of Local First Arizona presented Phoenix’s successful Adaptive Reuse Program, which her organization helped the city establish. She walked attendees through the policy and the process for implementing it, and described its results, including dozens of new businesses that have taken root in formerly vacant buildings. Kimber also talked broadly about the importance of zoning and how districts with varied and historic building stock create a more conducive environment for people to start and grow businesses.
In addition to moderating the workshop, I kicked off the panel with an opening presentation about the significant economic and social benefits that cities derive from a thriving sector of locally owned businesses. I also outlined five factors that cities need to account for in order to ensure that there are places where local businesses can succeed. These are: a fair playing field, the right built environment, access to capital, expertise, and networks of mutual support.