Category: Economic Development
If economic development is a familiar term to you, when you hear it you probably think of headlines announcing some new company coming to town, perhaps in the business park at the edge of town, and bringing much-needed jobs to your community.
Although these industrial attraction projects do indeed occur now and then, most of the economic growth in communities, both big and small, occurs when companies that already exist grow, adding jobs to accommodate new business, and when new small enterprises get launched.
These economic develop successes, however, don't usually get the same splashy announcements as do new companies moving in. When a small firm with 10 employees experiences a growth in sales and hires two new people, or when an enterprising person quits a 9-to-5 job to start a new venture, it usually occurs under the radar.
Most of the economic development tools used in our communities are designed to attract new business. One of those tools is something called a shovel-ready program. Most of these programs involve parcels of land ready for construction so that permits and other paperwork can be expedited when someone becomes interested in building a new facility there.
The tools and programs to encourage and support entrepreneurship and business growth are fewer and further between. Perhaps it is time for communities to consider a shingle-ready program, designed to support the formation of new enterprises and the growth of existing businesses.
Chris Gibbons is the former economic development director of Littleton, Colorado, and the founder of Economic Gardening, a program to help grow existing businesses. Gibbons contends that both new businesses and those poised to grow need three things: information, infrastructure and networks.
Communities interested in becoming shingle-ready might want to pay attention to Gibbons' advice. When he says that these companies need information, he's pointing out that these smaller firms usually don't have the in-house capacity do things such as sophisticated market analysis to help their decision-making process.
When Gibbons talks about infrastructure, he's not referring to just roads and sewers, but also a different kind of infrastructure such as access to high-speed Internet service and expertise from attorneys, accountants and others with specialized expertise.
Entrepreneurs also need networks that connect them to other entrepreneurs. One of the reasons places like Silicon Valley have been successful is because of something called knowledge spillover that occurs when a lot of entrepreneurs bump into each other. They learn from one another's successes and failures and form supportive informal networks.
Here's an example of how a community could have a shingle-ready program that encourages and supports the formation of new entrepreneurial ventures. We'll call this community Midville.
Recognizing that access to information is an important part of a shingle-ready community, the Midville Chamber of Commerce connects with the regional Small Business Development Center (SBDC) to arrange to have one of their business counselors at the local library a half day each week. They spread the word extensively through social media that the SBDC representative is available to provide market analysis for prospective entrepreneurs.
Midville wants to turn downtown coffee shops and public spaces into hotspots of activity. They make wireless broadband available free in the downtown area, recognizing that a young person working on a laptop and sipping latte might be the town's next businessperson.
A local women's sorority in Midville begins thinking of itself as an entrepreneurship support network in addition to a service club. They bring in guest speakers to talk about launching a business and opportunities for women-owned enterprises.
Information, infrastructure, networks.
If Midville were to do these things they would be well on their way to becoming a shingle-ready community. Of course, there is much more they could do, but these things would be a start.
Most civic leaders think a great deal about economic development, and nearly every community has some sort of strategy and a set of tools to encourage industrial attraction. But they would be well served to spend as much time and effort on strategies and programs to make them shingle-ready as well as shovel-ready.
Scott Hutcheson is senior associate at the Purdue University Center for Regional Development.
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