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Hardware, Handbags and Hot Sauce: How Small-Scale Manufacturing Can Bring Downtowns Back

Five cities are leading the way with programs to nurture these homegrown entrepreneurs and fill storefronts emptied by the pandemic.

The 1100 Wicomico building, a newly renovated flexible manufacturing space in Baltimore, Md. (Made in Baltimore)
As America continues its economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, it must revitalize its downtowns and nearby neighborhoods. The nation also needs to create more opportunities for wealth-building among populations who have been historically excluded. The key is to prioritize small-scale manufacturing, and five cities are pointing the way for the nation.

Even before the pandemic, many of America’s downtowns and in-town neighborhoods were struggling economically, and many people in these places were being left behind. The pandemic only made that situation worse, with even more storefronts vacant.

A new approach to filling those vacancies is needed, and that’s why small-scale manufacturers are so vital. With products ranging from hardware to handbags to hot sauce, they have multiple sources of revenue. Unlike so many struggling retail stores that depend solely on foot traffic, small-scale manufacturers typically have both online sales and in-person customers. They sell retail, wholesale or as part of supply chains. They sell locally, nationally and beyond. They also create in-town destinations that attract local residents and tourists — so cool to see things being made! — to the benefit of other nearby stores.

On top of that, small-scale manufacturers typically grow from home-based businesses, so every community can nurture them by encouraging home-based businesses to shift to storefront settings. Small-scale manufacturers also can add to the diversity of business ownership because the culture of making products cuts across the demographics of every community and its heritage.

The good news continues: Five cities have created models on which other cities can draw. Those five cities are on both coasts and in the middle of the country. Some are large; some are smaller. Their models can be adapted and applied anywhere in the nation.

San Francisco is the biggest of the five and must go first, as it was the first city to embrace this concept broadly. In 2010, San Francisco created SF Made, a nonprofit organization that supports local manufacturers who create jobs and career pathways for local residents. It provides these manufacturers with educational resources and one-on-one services like real estate placement, connects low-income job seekers with employment and training opportunities, and offers policymakers strategies to help home-grown and scaling small manufacturers and their employees thrive.

SF Made is the first of these programs to partner with the private real estate development community to construct a new multi-tenant building for small-scale manufacturing, 150 Hooper, which has its roots in a city zoning incentive program to build new industrial space.

Greater Boston took a different but equally early approach. In 2010, it created a nonprofit makerspace, Artisan’s Asylum, which is devoted to the teaching, learning and practice of fabrication. It shares tools and equipment, offers affordable classes to the public and provides flexible workspace. It has more than 160 studios and provides access to hundreds of tools.

At the end of last month, Artisan’s Asylum began moving from its site in Somerville to expanded facilities on the extended Harvard University campus across the Charles River in Allston-Brighton. There it will embark on a long-term partnership with Harvard, which welcomed the “cutting-edge, innovative” makerspace whose plans “represent an exciting opportunity to strengthen the region’s creative economy and support communitywide creativity and collaboration.” This also builds on its long-term relationship with the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms and the Fab Foundation, pushing the edge on access to tools and groundbreaking inventions.

Baltimore has engineered one of the nation’s most comprehensive initiatives. Six years ago, the city launched the Made in Baltimore program to grow the market for locally produced goods and support the people who make them. The city then created partnerships with Open Works, now one of America’s largest nonprofit makerspaces, and Innovation Works, which teaches members of disinvested communities to build and own successful social enterprises.

Baltimore also pursued private-sector investment, with newly renovated flexible manufacturing space available in the 1100 Wicomico building downtown. In 2021, Made in Baltimore launched its Home-Run Accelerator, which offers technical assistance to help home-based product businesses move into storefronts and networks with property owners to identify suitable retail settings.

Columbia, Mo., is supporting small-scale manufacturing through partnerships with the regional economic development authority and targeted rezoning. The city recently revised its zoning code to encourage artisan manufacturing in The Loop, a commercial and industrial improvement district north of downtown. There, the new designation will allow the corridor to develop into a more vibrant place with space for local product businesses to bring new energy and good-paying jobs to the area.

The zoning changes are the next step in investments that have taken place since 2018. In that time, The Loop launched a new commercial shared kitchen in partnership with the regional economic development authority; it created a makerspace in partnership with the Moberly Area Community College; it supports a shared audiovisual production space in partnership with a private-sector leader; and it launched its own “makers market” in person and on Instagram to bring new opportunities and visibility to this business sector.

Knoxville, Tenn., has designated the maker community a civic priority, and today more than 900 makers belong to The Maker City, the greater Knoxville-area community of makers, artists, creatives, and small-scale manufacturers and supporting entities. The program, led by the Mayor’s Maker Council, is staffed by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC), a business accelerator launched in 2013 and located downtown. KEC provides business development training, and its scaling of retail spaces is integrated into the city’s overall economic development strategy.

The Maker City program now runs startup and scale-up programming for product businesses throughout the region and continues to build its partnership with the Knoxville Area Urban League to ensure inclusive access to both programming and branding support.

These five cities have taken different approaches, but all lead the nation in doing so. It’s the spreading of these approaches and their further evolution that America so greatly needs as our nation emerges from the pandemic. The economic vitality, diversity and ingenuity of our downtowns and in-town neighborhoods depend upon it.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Ilana Preuss is the founder and CEO of Recast City.
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