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Ecosystem Building in Grand Rapids’ Third Ward

Posted on by Paul Moore, filed under Community

The Oct 15 Mlive article publishing the results of Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative Project on economic development investments in Grand Rapids’ three wards is a snapshot of stark disparity (Grand Rapids' third ward being left behind in economic development). Unfortunately, it’s the most recent data point to validate a history of disparity in Grand Rapids when it comes to the Third Ward and its predominantly minority community. Beneath the surface, it also points toward an underlying problem in framing economic development work. This boils down to the misguided belief that a handful of people can predict winners and losers.

From 2012-2017, $1.29 billion (with a “b”) was invested across the three wards that comprise the City of Grand Rapids. Of that, only $19.4 million was invested into Third Ward. To put a sense of scale on it, let’s convert each dollar into one second of time. For 19,400,000 seconds to pass takes roughly 7.5 months. In Michigan, that’s about how long we complain about it being cold. For 1,290,000,000 seconds to pass... want to take a quick guess? Go ahead.

It takes more than 40 years for 1.29 billion seconds to pass. Did you guess that? Most people don't.

Ecosystem Building is an emerging field in economic development, which Start Garden is dedicated to furthering in Grand Rapids. It places innovators and entrepreneurs at the center, then works to change the community conditions surrounding them. Most critical to the work, it addresses economic development for those who create new value from scratch before the value is created. Not just investing in projects that are already considered high value from the beginning.

The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative Project is another data point on what happens when dollars flow to support projects already considered of high value. However, a good mix includes investing into high value projects while also investing into multiple on-ramps into business creation and growth. It targets neighborhoods and populations to seed a lot of entrepreurial activity, knowing that a few will bring high value development in years to come.

In the same week, the Kauffman Foundation’s Vice President of Entrepreneurship, Victor Hwang, published these questions to frame what bottom-up economic development looks like in, What if Everyone got a Fair Shot?

To create a blueprint for bottom-up economic development, let’s ask some "what if" questions:

  1. What if we focus on the little things that matter to millions of entrepreneurs, instead of the big things that matter to a handful of big players?
  2. What if starting a business required zero forms and zero fees?
  3. What if the energy that 238 cities expended on the Amazon HQ2 contest was invested instead into building their own entrepreneurs and innovators?
  4. What if more workforce training dollars were dedicated to help people start and grow their own businesses, instead of just teaching employees to fill roles in existing businesses?
  5. What if public school systems were redesigned to teach students how to make jobs, not just take jobs?
  6. What if borrowing $30,000 to start or grow a new business was easier than borrowing $30 million to grow a big one even bigger?

Start Garden’s “first domino” project was The 100. Seeding 100 aspiring entrepreneurs with $1,000 to compete to be among 10 to receive $20,000 to get a new business effort off the ground. We targeted every neighborhood, spent most of our marketing efforts in the historically under-represented Third Ward, and received submissions from across the demographic board. The final 100 were made up of 44% women, 53% minorities, 53% with an income of less than $50,000.

As the momentum that kicked off with The 100 continues, our long term strategy is for the seeds of that investment to grow into a handful of projects that draw significant development dollars within the Third Ward in years to come.

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