“As the birthplace of the civil rights movement, we have a responsibility to keep moving America forward. We are the hub of civil rights. With that, we have to make sure we’re moving forward especially our historically disenfranchised communities.” These powerful words are from the City of Montgomery’s first ever Economic Development Director Darryl Washington.
As alluded to by Washington, Montgomery is perhaps most well-known for being home of the Montgomery Bus Boycott; but did you know that it is also the automotive industry hub of the South, the site of a renowned air force base that houses residents from around the world, and perhaps most importantly, includes numerous small businesses. It is these small businesses that arguably make up the foundation of the city and its culture.
Jennifer Anderson is a consultant who works closely with the City of Montgomery’s Economic Development Department to advance this burgeoning cross-collaborative group of business owners, city leaders, resource providers, and others. Montgomery is a predominantly African American community, and Jennifer notes “a lot of small businesses, especially African American and minority-owned, don’t start with the same amount of capital [as other businesses].”
The pandemic brought to the forefront the limited support that small businesses in Montgomery were receiving. The city saw an opportunity to focus on empowering small businesses and created the Economic Development Department to lead these efforts. Since launching early in the pandemic, the city has since directly allocated American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars to promote and advance small businesses. Anderson mentioned several times the importance of Montgomery’s city government being a convener and working with partners to provide a “one-stop-shop” for business owners in the community.
How Montgomery is Doing It
Moving forward to make the “one stop shop” a reality, the City of Montgomery, using ARPA and other funds, has created the Access Montgomery Task Force, whose goal is “to promote a thriving ecosystem that supports small businesses at all stages of operation through access to resources, training, market exposure, capital and opportunities that promote their success.” Through the City Inclusive Entrepreneurship (CIE) program’s Ecosystem Mapping commitment, Montgomery is connected to SourceLink®, an organization that maps resources for communities’ entrepreneurial ecosystems and provides insight into how entrepreneurship resources might be better shared or centralized in an accessible way.
The city recognizes the critical role that partnerships and relationships with small businesses play in the community. Regarding how CIE participation will buoy the Access Montgomery initiative, Washington notes that “ecosystem mapping will help us determine where our assets are in the community … we have to rely on our partners in the community, nonprofits, economic development organizations, and more to help us ensure small businesses thrive.” One way they’ve focused on strengthening their ecosystem partnerships is through ensuring the Access Montgomery Task Force includes representatives from “microecosystems” of businesses; essentially, representatives of categories of small business types (restaurants and bars, hospitality, downtown, etc.) so that no business categories are inadvertently left behind. These representatives then provide a strong window into how to make the Task Force as beneficial as possible, by sharing with the city and other partners “what’s really needed” for their businesses to advance.
Lessons Learned from Montgomery
While the program year is about half-way through, Anderson provides great advice for those cities looking to get started with ecosystem mapping and partnership development:
“If you’re going to do this work, people have to know you.” Start by simply talking with community members. In Montgomery, Economic Development Director Washington and his team seek to go to lunch and/or an evening activity at a local business at least twice a week, to move beyond silos and meaningfully connect with the small business community.
“With, not for.” Perhaps a mantra that has been heard before, it is no less true when working with small businesses and seeking to connect with and support the community. Small business owners know their own work and needs best and making plans “with, not for” them strengthens both the success and the credibility of the city leaders connecting with them.
“Keep a ‘parking lot’ for new ideas.” Prioritizing, especially in the early stages of building economic development work, is critical. Community members will bring ideas to your door, and it is important to nurture those, without over-committing. When folks bring in new ideas where there is not enough bandwidth yet to meet them, keep their feedback handy for when the timing is right.
“Be both open and honest.” As Montgomery begins to gather and go deeper into ecosystem mapping, they’ve benefited from speaking frankly with partners about their current capacity, while also being open to new ideas as they grow. They seek to listen to their community while also being forthright about what is possible.
Thanks to its focus on intentional collaboration, Montgomery is making rapid strides to support its diverse and vibrant small business community into the future.
This blog is part of a series highlighting NLC’s City Inclusive Entrepreneurship (CIE) Network. Cities in the network have committed to implementing new policies, programs and practices that increase economic opportunity for residents through small business ownership and entrepreneurship. In November 2022, Mayor Steven Reed of Montgomery, Alabama, committed to identifying and connecting small business support resources to provide a one-stop hub for local business owners.