As America emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, new business expansion becomes a pressing priority in communities nationwide. That’s because our downtowns are pockmarked by vacant storefronts, and new businesses create virtually all net job growth. In that context, makers have a vital role to play in spurring business and job growth as new business champions and catalysts.
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For new business growth to reach into every community and diversify business ownership in the process, it must evolve locally – not be recruited from afar. It must be generated from the talents, skills, heritage, and history of our communities. That’s what the maker movement has always been about: celebrating our talents and skills and advancing their influence in our communities.
For far too long, U.S. cities and counties have sought to grow business by attracting it from elsewhere – often resulting in the use of scarce financial incentives to lure a prominent company from one place to another with no net benefit to the nation. That business recruitment process is inherently dismissive of local talent. It assumes that the solution is elsewhere – not at home.
Instead, our communities should grow our own businesses, and that’s where makers come in – both to foster more small business growth from makers and because makers can lead the creative process that can yield more locally grown new businesses. That creative process must be more highly prized and supported, and makers are a unique resource for accelerating it.
Community leaders should explore with local makers how to advance creativity. Many essential local institutions may already exist, including maker fairs, farmers markets, local festivals, libraries, and community colleges. They provide vital services, but they also offer settings where community leaders can find makers whose expertise can be crucial to advancing local creativity.
Makers can explain how creative people can be encouraged to gather and learn from each other. What are the local gathering places for makers? How can they be strengthened?
How can mentoring opportunities be encouraged for maker small businesses? Research shows that new business owners benefit from talking with others who have experienced and solved the challenges that they face.
Community leaders should also focus on ensuring inclusiveness. What communities are already part of the local fabric of new business growth? Who is missing? Where is greater outreach required?
Makers can offer valuable advice on how to conduct that outreach. What are the dynamics that bring people together? How accessible are the settings? What other leaders should be involved?
Makers can also create solutions to the barriers that obstruct the transition from home-based business to bricks-and-mortar storefront. Are shared retail settings available? Are rents appropriate? Are shared production facilities needed?
Community leaders can also explore how local government can promote local businesses. Maker fairs, farmers markets, and local festivals are often seen as vibrant ways to create great places, but they also provide a pipeline of local talent and business growth opportunities. In addition, promoting them advances the environment of creativity. Community leaders should discuss with makers how to promote that environment further.
A shift in the economic development of America’s cities and counties has already arrived. Amid COVID-19, major retail brands have closed record numbers of stores nationwide. Reliance by local communities on attracting those brands in the future is no longer a promising approach. Communities have no option other than to rely on their own creativity.
That may seem like a fallback position, but it’s a great opportunity that has been there all along. It just takes more attention to the details in the community. In the past, communities have often opted for the seemingly quick fix of attracting an established company waving the prospect of immediate new jobs. The problem with that approach is that those jobs are not tied to the community. They can be lured away just as they were enticed.
Locally generated businesses have a stake in the community. They typically offer better-paying jobs, increase local business ownership, support nearby businesses, and grow community wealth.
With that shift now evident, attention should turn increasingly to the maker community, and the maker community should step into that leadership role. The expertise in local creativity lies with makers. That’s where America can find the strength that it needs to generate the business and job growth that it requires.
The author is Founder and CEO of Recast City and author of Recast Your City: How to Save Your Downtown with Small-Scale Manufacturing (Island Press, 2021).