Although fall normally means an end to the growing season, the Grand Rapids Economic Development Office began tilling the concrete and asphalt fields last week to start a three-year economic gardening venture.
“This is a new service model directly related to economic gardening,” said City Economic Development Director Kara Wood to commissioners last week.
In turn, city commissioners approved a three-year agreement that will give Neighborhood Ventures $75,000 each year to recruit, retain and develop services for small-business owners in the city’s 20 neighborhood business districts.
Neighborhood Ventures, headed by executive director Mark Lewis, is the go-to organization for these business owners and will perform much of the effort’s heavy lifting.
“This will give us a tool,” said Commissioner Dave Shaffer, who is part of a small group trying to direct more attention to three business districts on the city’s west side.
Wood said her office has been working with an array of “entrepreneurial service organizations” to develop new gardening models. She said the initiative already has begun and has two stages.
“Phase one includes the development of a regional website to aggregate and disseminate available services and staff to organize and oversee the promotion and marketing of the website and the ongoing ESO collaboration,” she said. “Phase two addresses the need to proactively deliver these services to small businesses and entrepreneurs in the city’s neighborhood businesses.”
Wood added that an advisory group has been formed to oversee the first stage, and two businesses have been selected through an RFP process to develop the website and brand it.
“Staffing needs have been finalized and job descriptions are developed and will be posted once the group has secured the necessary financial resources for operation,” she reported.
The city revenue will largely be used to fund the second phase work, which will involve direct contact by Neighborhood Ventures with the business districts. LINC Community Revitalization and Grand Rapids Urban League will assist Neighborhood Ventures in the effort to work closely with the business districts.
Commissioner Ruth Butler said Neighborhood Ventures should have the same contact with building owners who have vacant ground-floor storefront space in the districts, and also check into a microloan program to see if funding is available to help fill some of the sites with new businesses.
The city will distribute the funds to Neighborhood Ventures in four installments, with the first $26,250 coming in 30 days. Then three separate installments of $16,250 will be made by April 1.
“Neighborhood Ventures will also be required to provide detailed secondary market information on the neighborhood business district economies, including leakage reports and market potential,” said Wood.
Wood said data will be compared to information the city has from 2009 and will be used as a benchmark to track the gardening effort’s progress. That’s a key factor because the data outcomes will go a long way to determine whether the effort continues in the second and third years.
“These outcomes include the number of retention visits conducted, the number of connections made for technical assistance through referrals to other ESO partners, number of businesses improving operations and adding employees due to assistance provided, as well as neighborhood business district occupancy and vacancy rates,” said Wood.
The Economic Development Office will administer and monitor the work on an ongoing basis.
“This is another transformation,” said Mayor George Heartwell.