When people discuss what’s wrong with Little Falls, MN, they keep coming back to the economy. One of the persistent problems in the city is a lack of jobs that pay a decent wage. How do we improve the city’s overall economy so that we can address low wages and other problems facing the city?
In my continued reading of “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” by Robert D. Putnam, one of the prime factors in improving the economic outlook of a community is to improve the social capital of citizens. Cities have got to find ways to get people interacting with each other in order to build trust, social cohesion, and creativity. Social capital builds economic capital.
So, social capital is important, but how might we address economics directly?
There’s an idea I’ve been noodling for months. Why not focus on helping local residents become entrepreneurs?
My husband and I have owned two businesses in the community over the years and I’m continually amazed at how many people are running small businesses, many of which are part-time ventures. Residents have had to be resourceful because so many of us have low incomes and need to figure out how to survive. Being scrappy is a good characteristic for an entrepreneur.
Why don’t we make Little Falls an enclave for entrepreneurs? I’m thinking about businesses that employ no more than 10-20 people, tops. While people may think it’s a wasted effort to have a bunch of one- and two-person businesses (Mom & Pop shops), when you’ve got one or two people self-employed, they’re still employed, and that’s a good thing.
LF could become an enclave for entrepreneurs by offering the following in a cohesive and consistent fashion:
– Capital for small businesses (Rather than sinking large amounts of cash into big, established ventures, how many small businesses could get a foothold with a $10,000-$20,000 loan or grant?)
– Create a business incubator space with a sliding scale for rent (There could be more than one business incubator, one that’s a workshop space and another that serves as an office-type environment. I’m thinking of a non-profit incubator along the lines of one called Church & State in Utah.)
– Provide a pop-up shop space – a short-term retail space downtown that allows small business owners to test their product ideas
– Keep a registry of empty buildings to help entrepreneurs find space
– Provide a variety of classes in entrepreneurship (Classes on bookkeeping, marketing, dealing with taxes, selling online, legal issues, etc. Make these regular classes that aren’t too expensive and that are taught by those who have run businesses.)
– Rework the city’s home occupation ordinance to be more friendly to residential businesses. (If you look at the current Little Falls ordinance on home occupation, it is so restrictive that an area like Grand Avenue in St. Paul, which is a lively mixed residential and commercial district, would be unable to exist. Remember the social capital that’s supposed to be so important to a local economy? One way to build social capital is to get people mingling regularly with each other. Mixed use is a good way to do this.)
It’s too easy for communities to fixate on the one giant business that will move in and employ a large chunk of local residents. We need to quit looking for a savior from the outside to fix the city’s economic woes. Why not create the conditions necessary to grow small businesses locally? A variety of small businesses help hedge a community’s bets against the crash of a large business. (Hennepin Paper, anyone?)
I found some confirmation for my entrepreneurial idea through this article:
The article discusses the many ways big-box stores have figured out to strip resources from communities, thus making communities poorer for having brought them in. The end of the article provides an alternative to the problems caused by big-box stores: Encourage locally-owned businesses.
How can we create the conditions necessary in Little Falls to grow local small businesses?