The recent pandemic has taught us all the same lesson – not to take our economy for granted. One silver lining of this global crisis is that more people now understand the importance and fragility of small local businesses.
Citizens across the country want to ensure the viability of their area’s industries – today and well into the future. And there's an emerging hope that by putting our heads together we’re starting to see the way forward.
So, how can you as a city official help with supporting small business?
Great question! As it turns out, there are many things a city office can do to help local companies thrive.
1. Promote Community Engagement
People are the lifeblood of both small businesses and the community alike. When considering how to support local industries, a city’s approach must begin and end with people!
First Step: Really Listen
A healthy relationship with your community relies on careful listening as its foundation. As a public servant, you must keep your ear to the ground and your finger on the pulse of local opinion.
Listen to small business owners, their employees, and their patrons. What are people missing? What are they dreaming of? Are they angry or frustrated with anything?
What do they love? And how can you offer more of that?
In short, find out what’s working for citizens and what’s not.
How can you do this? Head out to public events and mingle with people in person. Engage with them on social media. Pay close attention during town hall meetings. And also use surveys to reach even more community members.
Encourage the Use of City Resources
You want people to fully use their area's products, services, and spaces. So you'll need to promote them!
Some of the top ways include:
- Publish a Buy Local Guide. Or launch an app!
- Use the city’s social media to promote local companies via detailed maps or lists
- Sponsor fairs and other events where businesses can get in front of the community
- Host or sponsor networking events
The aim is to get people excited about supporting small businesses!
Another great idea is to create a database of rental facilities with an easy booking system. This helps your community take advantage of all the incredible spaces in your city.
Then, work with your city’s Destination Marketing Organization to promote area venues for events. You might even attract people from outside your area – along with the income they bring!
2. Provide Education, Training, and Development
To directly support small businesses you must focus on their critical needs. You’ll want to look at everything from boosting education, training, and available resources, to supply chain efficiency.
Here are some of the top ideas to consider:
Develop a Small Business Cluster
The small business cluster is usually found in large cities. But it's something small and medium-sized municipalities can also take inspiration from.
The cluster is a strategy for grouping companies in the same technology area or industry together, within close proximity to each other. This tends to increase innovation, through both competition and collaboration alike.
It also lowers certain costs and increases efficiency for small businesses in the sector. These companies often "share infrastructure, suppliers, and distribution networks,” says the online Reference for Business.
Examples include the clean tech incubator in Los Angeles, and a textiles and floor coverings cluster in Dalton, Georgia. And of course, the famous Silicon Valley.
If you spot a good opportunity for a cluster in your city, consider how you can:
- Commit local facilities for Research and Development for low-cost or free
- Sponsor networking and collaboration
- Promote businesses in the cluster and help them reach new markets
- Make grants and specialized education available to businesses in the target sector
Keep in mind that making a cluster happen requires collaboration. So, start by brainstorming a list of other policymakers and starting up a dialogue with them. You'll also want to converse with nonprofits, universities, and the business community.
Offer Pro-bono Consulting and Training
There are a whole host of initiatives you can take here, as a way of supporting small business in general.
Develop Off- and Online Hubs for Small Business Advice
Without solid advice and an understanding of the playing field, it’s easy for businesses to flounder. So hooking up your entrepreneurs and business owners with everything they need to know can make a sizable difference in your area’s business success rates.
You might start with a website full of informational resources. The next step could be a small business development center with dedicated offices for in-person consultations.
And keep in mind that pro-bono lawyers and accountants are often critical assets for cash-strapped small business owners.
Provide Online Business Training and Technical Assistance
Before the pandemic began, only 64% of businesses had a website. This percentage has certainly risen since then. But plenty of businesses could still use help fully establishing their online presence.
Classes on marketing and e-commerce will bring those online skills full circle.
Being online allows businesses to serve a broader customer base. Which also means they'll bring more dollars into the economy at home!
Create Workforce Training Programs
LinkedIn reports that 84% of small and medium-sized businesses have something in common. Namely, their top hiring challenge is finding enough qualified candidates.
Many small businesses are not able to recruit and train new employees. They simply don't have the resources for this.
And that's where your city office can step in and create a workforce training program tailored to needs in your area.
The Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, for example, is opening the McKenzie Regional Workforce Center to provide skilled trades training for young adults.
3. Use Zoning that Supports Small Business
City policies around the use of its built spaces have a massive impact on commerce. One way local economies can thrive is through small-business friendly zoning.
The Institute for Local Self-Reliance says, “zoning should support multi-story, pedestrian-oriented districts that include a mix of small and large commercial spaces, and that preserve historic buildings.
"This type of varied building stock offers the best habitat for local businesses, and research has found that neighborhoods with a range of building types and ages have more startups per square foot.”
That's a lot of support for small business just from some thoughtful planning!
Cities can also use “set asides” – or space allocated for their area's small businesses within new development projects
Other ideas for mayors and their councils include:
- Improve infrastructure and amenities. This helps customers feel inspired to circulate – which is good for local businesses!
- Consider a downtown revitalization project that takes advantage of state and federal programs
- Encourage reuse of vacant buildings
- Restrict “formula” or chain businesses
- Create a liaison position that helps small businesses navigate local permitting requirements
When you do the above, you're not only using your built environment to its full potential. You're promoting a wide variety of economic activity and local enterprises, too.
4. Boost the Chances for Profitability
Without profitability, you don’t have a business. City governments can do a number of things to directly support bottom lines.
Help Small Businesses Save Money
For starters, you can always take a look at that old standby – taxes. Collaborate with the state government. Offer tax breaks and incentives to small businesses whenever possible
Also, help business owners avoid municipal fines. How? Clearly publish guidelines and schedules for things like trash removal and hygiene standards.
Expand Access to Capital and New Revenue Streams
Small Business Administration loans have become harder to come by in recent years. This is due, in part, to fewer community banks.
There are various innovative ways cities are dealing with this.
“Oakland, Santa Fe, and other cities are exploring setting up a public partnership bank, modeled on the Bank of North Dakota.” says the ILSR. Philadelphia, PA on the other hand, has set up a “one-stop, single-application portal for local entrepreneurs seeking loans.”
Still other cities have chosen to provide help for business owners as they apply for SBA loans.
An additional idea is to consider using available ARPA funds for a facility rental software like Spotz. This allows small businesses to easily rent their spaces during off-hours, thereby creating new revenue streams.
Finally, you can give preference to your area's small businesses in city purchasing. This shows moral support, while also having an economic impact.
No matter your approach, the goal is the same. You want to make sure federal, local, and state funds get distributed to deserving small businesses.
Pick Something From the List - and Take Action!
There are so many things a mayor’s office can do in the way of supporting small business! Remember that at the top of the list is always listening to the people in your community.
Overwhelmed or confused about where to start?
For an easy first action, check out Spotz. It's the one-stop software for facility management, booking, and promotion. It helps you get your spaces used, your community gathering, and new income streams flowing into your local economy.