In September 2020, 47 cities made commitments to new initiatives to support inclusive economic development and innovation at the Kauffman Mayor’s Conference on Entrepreneurship. NLC’s City Innovation Ecosystems program collects and tracks these commitments to showcase successes, identify best practices, and connect peer cities that can learn together. Here we share the story of one city’s work.
Lessons on Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Building from Easthampton:
- Data is foundational. Few, if any cities have accurate information on the characteristics of their small businesses and the organizations that are intended to support them. Efforts to “map” the ecosystem, including which organizations offer which services and ensuring this information is easily accessible to entrepreneurs, is a good first step.
- Leverage the unique strengths of your ecosystem. Easthampton isn’t Boston – and it shouldn’t try to be. Artisanship and small-scale manufacturing are tentpoles of Easthampton’s economy; the city is implementing policies, programs, and practices intended to grow these sectors while hopefully attracting new residents who are drawn to the creative milieu.
- Grow the resource pool. For small cities, a little bit of money can make a big impact – and it often comes from unexpected places. Aggressively pursue funding opportunities at the local, state and national levels, as well as from philanthropic organizations that may be interested in supporting your city’s economic vision.
Leveraging Easthampton’s Mill Town Roots
Forty-five minutes outside of Boston, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle is helping transform the City of Easthampton into a hotbed of entrepreneurship by leveraging her town’s unique geography, resources, and history. In doing so, she is not only looking to build a more resilient and equitable economy for local residents, but also create a model for other small cities interested in pursuing bottom-up, small business-driven economic development.
An essential element of Easthampton’s development strategy is its history as a mill town. During the Industrial Revolution, Easthampton saw rapid increases in its population with significant growth in agriculture and later, textile manufacturing. Things changed in the 1960s when a string of factory and mill closures left the town reeling. “Our workforce was centered on the mills, and when the mills suddenly closed, many residents relied on informal entrepreneurship to make ends meet,” says LaChapelle. “This type of entrepreneurship was nascent for a long time. If you needed something welded, there was a guy or a gal who had a small shop that could do that. If you need a new piece of art, there was someone who could make it for you. We were a community of makers and craftspeople. It probably wasn’t their full-time job, but it was happening.”
In the 1990s, as property values rose in nearby college towns of Holyoke and Northampton, LaChapelle saw an influx of new residents looking for an affordable alternative. This influx led to the town’s incorporation as a city in 1996. Since then, city leaders have been in search of methods to reinvigorate the local economy by leveraging the entrepreneurial spirit of residents and strengthening the types of cultural amenities that attract the young and creative. “We needed a forward-thinking strategy based on our strong informal and somewhat unspoken community traditions,” she says.
A Blueprint for a Bottom-Up Economy
One of Mayor LaChapelle’s strengths is her ability to find external resources and financial support for city projects. Since 2010, the city has implemented several community-based initiatives, including: acquiring state funding to repurpose its largest vacant mill as a mixed-use commercial space for small businesses, erecting a boardwalk surrounding the Nashawannuck pond as a public gathering place, elongating a 6-mile bike path so that it connects Easthampton with Northampton and Southampton, and became one of the first cities in the state to launch a cultural district, Easthampton City Arts. “I came into office wanting to use all my connections to make sure Easthampton is known state-wide and that it gets every dollar it should,” she says.
Mayor LaChapelle has also been working to strengthen services the city provides to its entrepreneurs. Through this process, she quickly realized that many of the city’s service providers – chambers of commerce, incubators, accelerators, SBA outposts, etc. – were siloed and essentially invisible to current and prospective business owners. To solve for this, she joined the City Innovation Ecosystems program – a joint effort by the National League of Cities and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation – and committed to “mapping” Easthampton’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. She worked with a Kansas City-based firm, Sourcelink, to identify and catalog each of the entrepreneurial support organizations in the region and made them easily accessible to the entrepreneurial community through a central hub, called Blueprint Easthampton.
Easthampton made a new commitment through this year’s cohort of the City Innovation Ecosystems program to helping entrepreneurs in the informal economy acquire the resources they need to formalize and grow their businesses. LaChapelle says the “city needs to build supports other than just helping with a business plan. It needs to be on the ground; we need to give folks the opportunity and confidence to create and work in markets to generate wealth for the next generation. It’s about building trust in the pursuit of equity.” Details of this plan are being developed in early 2021 with implementation expected by July 31st.