Prioritizing Mom and Pop

Cities that support local businesses can boost community engagement and the economy.
March 28, 2017
David Kidd
By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.
Dynamically Planned Resident-Involved

If you live in New England and follow the news, you have probably seen economic development headlines focusing on General Electric moving its headquarters to the waterfront district in Boston, or perhaps the mixed support for marijuana-related businesses since Massachusetts recently legalized the drug for recreational use. You may have seen the latest in the negotiations for a new soccer stadium with the New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft or how a gun manufacturer in New Hampshire is relocating to Georgia, sparking another debate on the state of manufacturing in the Northeast and across the country.

But if you take a closer look at local newspapers, it is the local businesses that dominate. Even in social media, I see local businesses highlighted in shared articles or links. The community gets excited when the first bed and breakfast or a cool new business like a brewery or a curious escape room opens. I loved hearing about new owners buying a closed diner and eagerly waiting to see if their hash browns or pumpkin pancakes were good. My parents opened their first restaurant when I was four, and a second restaurant when I was 12. It was hard work, but my dad seemed to know everyone that came in, and everyone that came in seemed to know how I did on my last math test.

“Mom and pop” businesses in general are small but mighty when it comes to the local -- and even national -- economy. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 80 percent of businesses employ 20 or less and 90 percent of businesses are family owned or controlled. Small businesses contribute two-thirds of the GDP and usually reinvest more into the local community. Understanding, encouraging and incorporating small and family-owned businesses into economic development plans is not only smart but essential to helping communities grow. Strategies could include helping to increase access to capital, simplifying regulations and permitting, providing opportunities for networking and marketing, and improving internet access.

Mayors can provide creative leadership to help small businesses. The mayor of Gardner, Mass., created a campaign called “Get it in Gardner” and adopted the 3/50 Project that encourages residents to spend $50 between three local businesses each month. Gardner was once a thriving furniture manufacturing city, but had to adapt when many of those companies left or downsized. Proactive planning and engaged leadership have helped the city retain a viable downtown with local shops, as well as attract new development. Cities that prioritize and support their mom and pop businesses send a positive message that they care about creating a strong and inclusive economic backbone.