Community development and economic development are often two sides of the same coin. Commercial and business development rarely flow into distressed communities. Likewise, communities can rarely overcome such intractable problems without an injection of economic resources. Attracting new business and creating jobs is often the first goal of any neighborhood revitalization plan. Encouraging big-name brands and corporations to move to your community may create jobs and improve the economy, but many profits are redirected to an HQ many miles away rather than being reinvested in the local community.
A new movement might be changing that, though, encouraging peer-to-peer economic exchange and a do-it-yourself mentality. A recent article from the Freelancers’ Union (an organization that promotes “new mutualism,” a “movement that relies on sustainable, community-driven solutions to solve seemingly intractable problems”) describes several municipalities that have specifically sought to cultivate independent businesses and entrepreneurship. Each successful city promoted small business ownership, sustainability, and buy-local initiatives. Each community also embraced its own uniqueness and leveraged individual strengths, rather than seeking to apply a template from another community. UNCA member agency The John H. Boner Community Center is doing just this type of resident centered engagement with its community development efforts on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis.
A similar article that appeared recently in The Atlantic describes Portland, Oregon’s, individualized, entrepreneurial strategy. Of course, “be like Portland” is not an effective economic development strategy. The article states that many economically successful communities “seem to be rediscovering what makes them special, the distinctiveness of what they make or provide and sell to the world, rather than what makes them the same.”
The DIY mentality is taking root in the form of municipal policy in communities large and small across the country. One example is UNCA member Bridge Rockford Alliance in Rockford, Illinois, which has invested in “the Etsy economy” (so-called because of the peer-to-peer marketplace Etsy.com). At its heart, the initiative encourages residents to learn to make things, and to understand the basics of managing a business. It also encourages locals to buy local, engaging in economic interaction directly with the manufacturer rather than distant corporations and layers of middlemen, thus reinvesting the money directly in the community.
The federal government has long promoted the ideal of “Main Street” as both the economic and cultural heart of communities. Marking another step forward, Karen G. Mills, Administrator of the Small Business Administration, announced at the 2013 Neighborhood Revitalization Conference that the SBA will waive fees on loans under $150,000. Ideally, policies such as these will encourage economic growth that leverages the unique skills of communities and reinvests the money locally. With these kinds of resources, neighborhoods can helm their own revitalization, bringing services, jobs, goods, and sustainable development to the local level.