Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Thank an entrepreneur

My interest in placemaking combines my conservation background and my desire to see sustainable rural communities. The two are intertwined. Sustainability often is equated to conservation-related topics, but for rural communities, sustainability includes maintaining a vibrant local economy. A vibrant local economy feeds back to conservation since a) a local economy can be built on natural assets and b) towns with hope for the future are more likely to be concerned about conserving the natural assets of their area. As I said, they were intertwined.

According to the recent talk in rural economic development circles, vibrant rural economies depend on promoting local entrepreneurship. Farmers were the original rural entrepreneurs but as employment shifted away from agriculture, other employers needed to be found. Not too long ago, for some communities finding those employers meant luring a company with tax incentives (with some of the companies banking on being able to get away with paying low wages since the area was job-limited). When the tax incentives expired, the company looked for the next place that would offer tax incentives. That’s not a sustainability based approach.

The sustainability based approach is to build up entrepreneurship among people who want to stay in the area. “Economic gardening” refers to encouraging residents start enterprises that make jobs for them and perhaps for others. These local entrepreneurs help put the ‘stay’ in sustainability (thanks to an unidentified street artist in St. Marys Australia for that play on words).

Local entrepreneurs may be placemakers directly. The ice cream vendor that adds more things to do at the waterfront (in the manner of Project for Public Places’ Power of 10 Concept) is an entrepreneur of place. The owners of the locally flavored cafes and pubs and other third places are entrepreneurs who help make the place as are local food producers, local artists/artisans, outdoor recreation vendors (i.e., the kayak rental on the waterfront).

Other local entrepreneurs help build and maintain the community, even if they are not directly involved in placemaking. Like all entrepreneurs, they are investing their time and treasure, with the goal of making money to be sure, but also because they, in some sense, want to help build the area. Afterall, there are easier ways to make money and one of those easier ways might be to leave the area. But your local, independent [fill in the blank from list below] stays and perseveres and probably supports the local community in ways national chains do not.

Look around. You may be surprised at the number of entrepreneurs in your community. I never really thought of our area as a hotbed of entrepreneurship until I thought about the number of contractors, auto repair shops, personal care businesses, restaurants, cafes, pubs, professional services, small manufacturing enterprises, and more, all of which make the town what it is. We all rely on them. I’m glad the proprietors of my favorite places are still hanging in there. They work really long hours. They have a lot invested in their enterprises. I hope they’re able to get some return on that investment when they choose to retire but in the meantime, thanks for keeping the lights on.

I’d like to see a “thank a local entrepreneur day” in our community. Do any of your communities out there have something like that?

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