As America continues its economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, it must revitalize its inner cities and neighboring neighborhoods. The nation must also create more opportunities for wealth creation among historically excluded populations. The key is to prioritize small-scale manufacturing, and five cities are leading the way for the nation.
Even before the pandemic, many American downtowns and urban neighborhoods were struggling economically and many people in those places were being left behind. The pandemic has only made matters worse, with even more storefronts vacant.
A new approach to filling these vacancies is needed, and this is why small-scale manufacturers are so essential. With products ranging from hardware and handbags to hot sauce, they have multiple sources of income. Unlike so many struggling retail stores that rely solely on foot traffic, smaller manufacturers typically have both online sales and in-person customers. They sell at retail, wholesale, or through supply chains. They sell locally, nationally and beyond. They also create destinations in the city that attract local residents and tourists – so cool to see things happening! – for the benefit of other stores nearby.
On top of that, small-scale manufacturers usually thrive from home-based businesses, so every community can nurture them by encouraging home-based businesses to move to stores. Small-scale manufacturers can also add to the diversity of business ownership, as the culture of product manufacturing crosses each community’s demographics and heritage.
The good news continues: five cities have created models that other cities can build on. These five cities are located on both coasts and in the center of the country. Some are tall; some are smaller. Their models can be adapted and applied anywhere in the country.
San Francisco is the largest of the five and must be the first, as it was the first city to embrace this concept widely. In 2010, San Francisco created SF does, a non-profit organization that supports local manufacturers who create jobs and career paths for local residents. It provides these manufacturers with educational resources and one-on-one services like real estate placement, connects low-income job seekers with employment and training opportunities, and offers policy makers strategies to help small local manufacturers. and expanding and their employees to prosper.
SF Made is the first of these programs to partner with the private real estate development community to construct a new multi-tenant building for small-scale manufacturing, 150 Hooper, which has its roots in a city zoning incentive program to build new industrial spaces.
Greater Boston took a different but equally early approach. In 2010, she created a non-profit makerspace, The artisans’ asylum, which is devoted to teaching, learning and practicing manufacturing. It shares tools and equipment, offers affordable courses to the public, and offers a flexible workspace. It has more than 160 studios and provides access to hundreds of tools.
Late last month, Artisan’s Asylum began moving from its Somerville site to expanded facilities on the extended Harvard University campus across the Charles River in Allston-Brighton. There he will engage in a long-term partnership with Harvard, which welcomed the “cutting edge and innovative” makerspace whose plans “represent an exciting opportunity to strengthen the region’s creative economy and support creativity and collaboration at the community level”. It also builds on its long-term relationship with the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms and the Fab Foundation, pushing the limits of access to tools and revolutionary inventions.
Baltimore designed one of the most comprehensive initiatives in the country. Six years ago, the city launched the Made in Baltimore program aimed at developing the market for locally produced goods and supporting the people who manufacture them. The city then forged partnerships with Open works, now one of America’s largest non-profit makerspaces, and Innovation works, which teaches members of disinvested communities to start and own successful social enterprises.
Baltimore also continued private sector investment, with newly renovated flexible manufacturing space available in the 1100 Wicomico building downtown. In 2021, Made in Baltimore launched its Home race accelerator, which offers technical assistance to help home product businesses navigate storefronts and network with owners to identify appropriate retail settings.
Columbia, Missouri, supports small-scale manufacturing through partnerships with the regional economic development authority and targeted rezoning. The city recently revised its zoning code to encourage artisanal manufacturing in The loop, a commercial and industrial improvement district north of downtown. There, the new designation will allow the corridor to become a more vibrant place with space for local product businesses to bring new energy and well-paying jobs to the region.
Zoning changes are the next step in investments that have taken place since 2018. Around this time, The Loop launched a new shared commercial kitchen in partnership with the regional economic development authority; he created a makerspace in partnership with the Moberly Area Community College; it supports an audiovisual production space shared in partnership with a leader in the private sector; and she launched her own “makers market” in person and on Instagram to bring new opportunities and visibility to this industry.
Knoxville, Tennessee., made the maker community a civic priority, and today more than 900 makers belong to The city of creators, the large community of makers, artists, creators, small-scale makers and supporting entities in the greater Knoxville area. The program, led by the Mayor’s Maker Council, is made up of the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC), a business accelerator launched in 2013 and located in the city center. KEC provides business development training, and its scaling up of retail spaces is integrated into the city’s overall economic development strategy.
The Maker City program now manages start-up and scale-up programs for product companies across the region and continues to grow its partnership with the Knoxville Area Urban League to ensure inclusive access to both programming and to support the brand.
These five cities have taken different approaches, but all lead the nation to do so. It is the spread of these approaches and their further evolution that America needs so badly as our nation emerges from the pandemic. The economic vitality, diversity and ingenuity of our city centers and city districts depend on it.
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