Small Business in the City

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That is the sound of me breathing. Work has finally settled to a more manageable pace and I'm delighted to have the freedom once again for my mind to wander and thoughts to collect. I've been holding out on you all summer, but that's not to say that nothing was happening. The catch-up begins now.

First, some stories. My major preoccupation this summer was mentoring a number of small businesses through an entrepreneurship program I've been leading for two years. I look forward to sharing a short documentary on said program with you via the New Urbanism Film Festival, to premiere in October if it places. Fingers crossed.

Incremental Entrepreneurship

In the meantime, we've been pleasantly surprised by the momentum this program has helped establish in its short history. Some of our graduates from last year have experienced significant growth in a hurry:

We're experiencing the pay-it-forward results of the program's handiwork already. Wear Your Label has generously played a role mentoring this year's businesses, as have some of our other graduates, like Anna, who owns a business called Ploome Fiber Arts. Anna ended up being a tremendously valuable advisor to a woodworker who joined us this year that makes fine tools for the growing league of hobby knitters. Here Anna is demonstrating how to use a Turkish drop spindle by Moosehill Woodworks:

John McConnell, the founder of Moosehill, exemplifies what makes this program rewarding and valuable in a radio interview with CBC.

I've already written on Strong Towns about how much I enjoy my longboard, handcrafted by Limbic, another one of our businesses. These guys have experienced their fair share of media pickup including an editorial (sorry - no link - behind a paywall) titled UNB students can teach New Brunswick a lesson.

We're also pumped to help the emergence of recyclable furniture, Aboriginal contemporary clothing, and jewellery that is made for fidgeting.

It's just plain cool to see the wheels in motion with this program. We are routinely seeing the entrepreneurial inspiration passed down from one year to the next. For example, there is no fashion industry in our part of the world, but now we get interest from all sorts of people who want to start a clothing line, all inspired by Wear Your Label from our first year. There's also a lot of political lip-service here about the importance of creating business in value-added wood products (as opposed to shipping out raw timber, pulp, and paper). We're actually doing it.

These are small businesses (at least at first) but their impact is real. For one, they support each other through what is undoubtedly a stressful lifestyle. Also, they give others hope and courage enough to start their own business. Getting deep in the weeds with these guys (for example, I was there filming almost every shot in that Limbic video, helping them figure out their brand) has helped me understand and interact with the incremental growth of small business in a city. It's more than that though. We're bumping the odds for these small businesses far higher than they would naturally be. This is how to be proactive about the grave challenge of our cities' economies hollowing out. We need to make sure that our policies don't outright disadvantage small businesses, and then do what we can to get new companies off to a strong start.

I'm all about the ripple effects and magnetism of doing something good in the city. As you'll gather from my frequent anecdotes, people notice when you improve public space or try to do something ambitious. This summer further informed my city-building curiosities on how one thing leads to another in the business community.

Small Business in the City

That chain reaction is important. I cracked open a book today called Small Business in the City which so far has focused heavily on the role Business Improvement Areas can play in both a neighbourhood's sense of place and physical improvements to infrastructure. The book recounts histories and anecdotes surrounding the creation of vibrant small business districts. It always seems to start with one person, like the mainstreet shop owner who wants to draw back visitors from the competitive lure of big box land. These heroes of small business sound like they live thoroughly exhausting lives, but they transform their cities time and again.

It has made me wonder... Working with small business owners has taught me more about Strong Towns than anything I could have studied. How many of our ranks in the Strong Towns community are small business owners themselves? It seems like they do quite a lot of the heavy lifting to revive a place or at least have the potential to. I'd be interested to know who among us run businesses with a physical presence downtown.

GRACEN JOHNSON works as an urban strategist and communications professional  in The Maritimes. Despite finishing her MPhil in Planning, Growth, and Regeneration in 2013, she has never stopped studying the city. Gracen thinks of her day-to-day as participatory action research, diving into the question of how Strong Citizenship can transform a city. She wears many hats exploring that herself, including as the creator and coordinator of an accelerator for small businesses that build community. She also freelances around the vision of "Projects for Places we Love" and has a video blog called Another Place for Me.

This year, Gracen is sharing field notes on her experiences with Strong Citizenship. In this regular column, you'll get snapshots of life as a friendly neighbour in a quintessential Little City that feels like a Big Town.