Today we welcome Jim Kumon from the Incremental Development Alliance who will start an ongoing column along with John Anderson to talk about their work educating and growing the small scale developers movement. The founders of the Alliance are all dear friends of Strong Towns and many of our members are active in this small scale developers movement. We are excited to see them get started and to support their work.


When it comes to real estate and economic development in the auto-centric world mindset, there are two constants: single family tract housing and corporate relocation head hunting. You can add the words 'publicly subsidized' to the beginning of both, for good measure.  Memory of the Great Recession has faded to the point where our cities and towns are forgetting how fragile these policies and practices made us.  What's a Strong Citizen to do stuck between these ubiquitous legacy systems and steps we know will put us on the path to financial solvency?

Move boldly, in small increments.

Why? Because no civilization has ever built its cultural, social, and financial frameworks around the scale of the automobile and thus there is no precedent for the transformation that is about to take place on the North American continent. We're about to unwind a huge experiment and it's not likely to go smoothly.

Anything we want to accomplish is going to require extraordinary creativity, resourcefulness and political prowess. Even small things, because we treat everything like it's big. Whether you want to call it triage, rules of thumb, makeshift tactics, workarounds and stopgap measures - a new set of tools will be needed to cope with a world in transition. And a revitalized set of actors will be needed to wield those tools, both metaphorically and physically.

This scenario is precisely the complex implementation challenge a new non-profit organization is out to tackle: Introducing the Incremental Development Alliance. 

Born from a blend of grassroots activists, local entrepreneurs, business owners and small scale real estate developers, the Incremental Development Alliance (IncDev or IDA) will focus on developing the know-how to MacGyver our collective way to better places at the neighborhood scale.

To accomplish this as an organization, IncDev will:

  • Train and coach individuals, civic groups and government agencies to develop their local economy and real estate
  • Pilot projects to test techniques with local communities to tackle specific challenges
  • Connect a continent of neighborhood-level doers to celebrate success and share field notes through opportunistic alliances

Organization founders Monte Anderson, Jim Kumon and John Anderson have spent their careers working across the dysfunction that comprises our current local economic and real estate systems. Along with our founding board, Susana Dancy, Glenn Kellogg, Jason Spellings and Emily Brown, who are each implementers in their own communities, IncDev hopes to accomplish the following four things:

1. Make Civilization Legal Again

By civilization, we largely mean John Anderson's definition: Walking distance from your rectangular shaped residence to your place of work, with $2 coffee and a watering hole on your way, ideally on a street where you won't be run over coming or going. That's the bare minimum.  

There's no issue more political at the local level than real estate development. We will need all hands aboard to explain to our fellow citizens how we got in this pickle and how we can choose to get ourselves out. This will require learning how to become locally influential.  Ultimately we need to change the rules so these next three groups can get to repairing all the damage we've caused.

2. Resurrect the Small Scale Developer

The real estate projects in walkable, human scaled neighborhoods will need to use an Economy of Means: small deals, small amounts of capital, small crews, services from small architecture and engineering shops, and small sites that make a difference in the neighborhood. Someone will have to possess the generalist approach and local human relationships to pull this together in a manner intelligible enough to earn a living.  A Small Scale, Incremental Developer perhaps.

To teach these dark arts is the Incremental Development Alliance's flagship program, the Small Scale Developer Training Workshop. Led by John Anderson and Monte Anderson, the first was held on Monte's home turf in Duncanville, TX in August 2015. Subsequent versions followed in New Hampshire, Maine and Georgia throughout this fall. (See more on Atlanta from Strong Towns Members Jason Schaefer and Johnny Sanphillippo).

It is part pep talk, part plain talk about how to be the splice between the building fabric your town needs, and the rules and regulations that by default would rather deliver more of what your town already has.

Over 300 people have been trained to take the first steps this year, with the next two Developer Boot Camps scheduled for December 4-5 in Kalamazoo, MI and January 29-31 in Seaside FL.  More are being added throughout 2016 on the IncDev event calendar in locations including Portland, OR, Dallas, TX, Providence RI, Fayetteville, AR, Washington DC area, and Detroit, MI.  You can also request one come to your community if those are not close enough.

3. Rebuild the Merchant Class

The shrinking middle class in America is in part due to the deck being stacked against two really important things: Running a small business and owning real estate that is not a single family house.  If we want local economic development to actually occur at the scale of our neighborhoods, we need more people to own their stake and create tangible value in their work.

Instead of going from tent, to truck, to kiosk, to 25' storefront to building owner/landlord, the conventional stairsteps to owning a business today that can compete in the auto-centric environment is the plight of the wannabe donut shop owner. If you want a franchise of a Dunkin Donuts, you better have a net worth of six figures.  On today's main streets, we need to help launch and then nurture small businesses in a way that helps them create that six figure level of wealth over the course of their careers,  not as the startup requirements.

Despite the odds, people are succeeding where the playing field is more level. I sit typing just 3 blocks from the now home of a farmers market tent and 7 blocks from a food truck that grew their businesses to afford brick and mortar establishments, one renting, one owning their space. These are the stories and processes we will investigate and share at IncDev.

4. Close the Skilled Trades Labor Gap

Mike Rowe is probably one of the most outspoken voices in America today about this issue. But don't take his word for it. Just tune into the economic section of any mass media outlet in the last 6 months. In short: Aging construction workforce + post-recession leakage of workers + everything taking longer to schedule and get done = WE ALL PAY MORE.

There's not much I tend to agree with the Association of General Contractors about, but this quote from CEO Stephen Sandherr, pretty much sums it up:  “The sad fact is our educational system is doing a great job of preparing students for jobs that don’t exist and a lousy job getting them prepared for high paying jobs like construction that do exist. Until we have an educational and training system that is aligned to economic reality, construction projects are likely to cost more and take longer to complete.”

If you care about affordable housing, environmental remediation, fixing potholes, or the cost to get a small chunk of stucco fixed on your house (me!), you should care about a comprehensive fix to getting more people to become skilled with doing something with their hands.   

This fall, I got to tour a new program in Louisville starting up to tackle this issue head on, with the added twist of using that trainee work force to help fix up old buildings in the West End neighborhoods where the program will be physically located. Local kids, often high school dropouts, working with experienced mentors, getting tech college credit and apprenticeship experience working on houses no one wants to or can afford the cost to fix, in the most economically depressed area of town…largely where these same kids are from. Beautiful.

The Change We Want to See

IncDev: More thriving, human scale neighborhoods that have the ability to evolve incrementally to changing demands and opportunities, building a local culture which grows its own economic assets and establishes long term wealth for its citizens.

We can do this. You can help.


Jim Kumon is Executive Director at the Incremental Development Alliance, a Minnesota based non profit cultivating prosperity in our neighborhoods at the nexus of real estate and economic development. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and toddler son. He can be reached at jkumon@incrementaldevelopment.org.