Even today, it still surprises me how often I hear people in these positions talk about attracting a major employer or tech companies as if those are the only industries that deserve our attention and investment. They are not—and cities hurt themselves when this is their only approach. Every city has a history and community members that make them unique. Whether it’s a history of textile mills or corn production, of immigration or Native tribal heritage, understanding and celebrating what has contributed to your community’s sense of identity is the secret of building an economy no one can take away. Entrepreneurs have always been part of this. Right now is a particularly important moment for small cities to understand this lesson. Funding from the American Rescue Plan is just now reaching cities, and in the coming weeks and months, local leaders will have to decide how to invest it. How can leaders make sure these funds power long-term local economic growth? Here are a few specific ideas: • Support entrepreneurs— Starting a business is challenging, but cities can make it easier by helping people who are just getting started. The Maker City program in Knoxville, Tennessee, for example, trains residents about how to start and scale a business. With over 900 businesses participating in their programs, and over 50% of participants in the startup training program from low- and moderate-income households, this is all about connecting people and helping them grow their revenues. Some find wild success like Pretentious Beer Glass and change the market. It’s important to invest in these programs and host them specifically in neighborhoods that have been left behind in the past.
• Provide incentives to be on Main Street— Build momentum for your local economy by encouraging businesses to locate downtown or inside the business improvement district. Incentives can include buying a building and leasing it at affordable prices, working with commercial landlords to rent to local businesses,
or changing zoning to accommodate small-scale manufacturing (which is often unintentionally, or intentionally, prohibited).
• Encourage flexible, inclusive ecosystems— In addition to supporting existing and growing businesses, encourage new businesses to start. Create makerspaces and training programs for advanced manufacturing, or commercial shared kitchens to give more entrepreneurs a cost-efficient place to grow. Make capital investments and low-cost loans to help product businesses build their domestic supply chains and distribution networks. And do it in a way that invites participation from business owners who reflect the full diversity of the community. For their part, city leaders in Columbia, MO, launched a shared commercial kitchen in the Loop—in the middle of the pandemic, no less—to intentionally provide resources for Black and Latino entrepreneurs whose businesses had not been supported in the past. This is just one of the ways we can build a new economic future together. The possibilities are endless.
Pillars of Community Wealth Building We define community wealth building as strategies that build community and individual assets, creating resilient and adaptable systems to address social and economic needs. The League will work with our partners to provide thought leadership, training, advocacy, resources, and best practices to build community wealth.
SEPTEMBER / OCTOBER 2021
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