90 Years of Helping City Leaders Improve the Local Business Climate

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Seattle, Washington“How does a city government work with local industries, businesses, and institutions to keep them in the city and improve communications with them?” This crucial question was raised by Mayor Sam Schwartzkopf of Lincoln, Nebraska, in a 1968 article in NLC’s previously published Nation’s Cities magazine titled “You Have to Work to Keep Industry.” In today’s economic climate, the issue of business retention and expansion remains a prominent issue for city leaders and economic developers.

While many mayors and city councils across the country recognize the value of attracting new industries and businesses, there is also a growing emphasis on fostering local talent and supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Mayor Schwartzkopf suggested back in 1968 that NLC members should consider adopting a city program he launched in Nebraska to personally visit local shops and companies and ask how the city can be of service to them. The Mayor and his team aimed to meet with as many of the city’s 300 firms as possible.

“Although the attraction of new firms and industries to any community is always extremely important, I feel that city government today must show its present industries that city government is deeply interested in them and that city government wants them to be interested in their city,” Schwartzkopf wrote in his article. “I strongly feel that city government must know what its industrial, business, and institutional leaders are thinking; what they would like to see done within the city.”

Some of the business assistance that Mayor Schwartzkopf provided as a result of his visits included providing increased police presence to an outlying industrial neighborhood, removing street parking to help reduce traffic congestion, modernizing street lighting, and dispatching city engineers to inspect the quality of a storm sewer near a steel company.

This type of support for the local business community is very similar to what we see today from cities involved in NLC’s Big Ideas for Small Business network. Our recent report on small business development highlights two key strategies for developing a business-friendly climate – proactively engaging the local business community and creating advisory councils with representation from small business.

As we highlight in the report, the city of Seattle’s Business Retention and Expansion Program (BREP) strives to retain and grow early-stage business through proactive outreach initiatives. The city staff who lead BREP aim to provide 250 businesses with direct assistance every year. The Seattle program has already helped hundreds of businesses find funding opportunities, select new site locations, and navigate government regulations.

In Cincinnati, the city formed a Small Business Advisory Committee (SBAC) as a mechanism for the local small business community to advise city officials on policies and programs. The SBAC voices the concerns of business owners and works in collaboration with city officials to find solutions to common problems. One of the city’s accomplishments since the establishment of the SBAC has been to streamline the permitting process by creating “jump teams” of city employees that work in coordination to assist small businesses.

While the economic landscape has evolved in many ways since 1968, Mayor Schwartzkopf from Lincoln knew back then what remains important today: getting the business friendly basics right is critical to supporting and growing local businesses. NLC is grateful to still be providing research, education and best practices about how cities can do just this.