Boston Mayor Martin Walsh unveiled a small business plan last week, with the goal of “Using better data . . . implementing new strategies based on the priority needs . . . and by creating a more sustainable alignment of resources and partners.” According to the plan report, small businesses account for 44 percent of private sector employment and 37 percent of revenue. Commercial property taxes are also the backbone of the City budget.
According to the report, older enterprises produce two thirds of all the revenue earned by small businesses and 83 percent of employment. Thirty four percent of small businesses are under three years old and have only 17 percent of employees. Furthermore, 62 percent of small businesses in Boston are in the retail or restaurant sectors.
This is important for the City’s urban fabric both because small businesses contribute to the vibrancy, walkability and livability of neighborhoods. Of the nine “small business ecosystem gaps” identified in the report, three are especially relevant: availability of capital, availability of real estate and access to new customers.
It’s a sick joke that this country has convinced just about everyone that owning a home is a responsible financial decision and the basis of household wealth, but most jurisdictions don’t allow anyone to do anything with their homes. One can use one’s house as collateral on a business loan, but few businesses are allowed to operate from residential areas as of right. This is especially problematic in poorer neighborhoods, which frequently lack commercial space as well as access to conventional sources of capital. While someone from such a neighborhood wouldn’t neccesarrily own their home, greater zoning flexibility could allow them to start a business in it with far fewer capital needs than having to rent and modify a space. The report also identified a lack of industrial space as an issue.
The section on developing new customers focused on marketing, but transportation is also an issue. Poor transit service between neighborhoods keeps customers from neighborhood from buying in another casually. Things have to be planned out and the difficulty and time consumption leads people instead to buy online or drive to a suburban mall.
All of this jibes well with the discussions at the City Building Exchange conference over the weekend In New Orleans, live tweeted by Steve Mouzon. According to Mouzon’s tweets, not only does strong retail contribute to strong urbanism, but good urban design contributes to a strong retail sector.
According to Mouzon, retail in Seaside, Fl, outperformed every shopping center in this country, urban neighborhoods need anchors that are walkable — one idea at the conference was wrapping a large anchor store with smaller stores. “If you want to be sustainable, you must have the types of businesses that people go to,” he tweeted.
Another point from the conference that’s relevant to Boston, tweeted by Wanda Mouzon is that “Inner cities are under retailed.” As explain by Steve Mouzon, “If you look at spending [per] acre rather than per household, poor neighborhoods are actually a good place for retail.”
There is also a strong correlation between higher walkscores and higher prices for offices, retail space and homes.
This is well-known on a local level in Boston, by Main Streets groups, for example, but has yet to percolate up into city planning.