Revitalize Downtowns with 'Maker' Economy

New Report Teaches Communities to Encourage the 'Maker' Economy

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Posted: Wednesday, November 15, 2017 3:16 pm

Technological and economic changes have created new opportunities in small-scale manufacturing and the “maker” economy, which present a chance for communities to make progress on several important economic development issues.

Small-scale manufacturing can grow local entrepreneurship and small business, develop or enhance new and existing economic sectors, and revitalize downtowns and business districts, according to a new report by Smart Growth America.

Using tools and case studies in four U.S. cities, the report builds the case for why economic development practitioners should be thinking about working with small-scale manufacturers, how to grow the sector, and the particular synergies that are created when locating these businesses in downtowns and mixed use centers.

The report was produced as part of a broader technical assistance program funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration and conducted in partnership with Recast City. The assistance guides communities in reviewing existing policies and programs that support local producers to grow their businesses in target neighborhoods.

Specifically, the selected communities received a community assessment, during which the project team conducted fieldwork in the local subject area, held in-depth interviews with small-scale manufacturers, and led discussions to coordinate efforts with local stakeholder groups. The four communities that received technical assistance were:

  • Knoxville, Tennessee
  • Lowell, Massachusetts
  • Twin Falls, Idaho
  • Youngstown, Ohio

The overall goal of the initiative is to help communities grow their small-scale manufacturing and help their community revitalization efforts. It takes explicit advantage of the fact that small-scale manufacturing can help downtown revitalization, benefiting from and thriving in downtown locations. The whitepaper brings together lessons from these four cities and from around the country. It identifies four actions that can be taken to help put these ideas into practice in your community:

  1. Find, connect, and support small scale manufacturers;
  2. Identify funding sources;
  3. Encourage small, light industrial space in local developments; and
  4. Create cross-sector partnerships.

Throughout the 19th century, small-scale manufacturing grew in cities, towns and villages all around the United States. For these businesses, location and resources mattered: power sources, natural resources, and access to markets and people. These local assets created a manufacturing environment that was human in scale, and integrated into the fabric of their communities.

In the 20th century, manufacturing transformed into a predominantly large-scale enterprise and moved out of neighborhoods and downtowns. Large-scale manufacturing became an incompatible use for neighborhoods and downtown areas due to its large physical scale, noise, significant freight requirements, and pollution. These factors ensured manufacturing’s separation from neighborhoods and commercial centers into standalone facilities or industrial parks. This change also created high barriers to entry in the manufacturing sector because production only occurred in high-cost, large scale plants and produced thousands of units at a time.

Now, recent technological and economic shifts — such as access to online marketplaces, the ability to process sales on mobile devices, and affordable access to tools for smaller production runs — have lowered those barriers. These trends are changing what is possible in manufacturing, and point the 21st century economy back to this new old trend: small-scale manufacturing.

This new face of manufacturing allows many more people to produce and sell their own goods: costs of production are lower, tools are more accessible, space needs are smaller, production runs can be small and on-demand, and sales can start overnight. And similar to 19th century manufacturing, these entrepreneurs often benefit from being embedded in downtowns and neighborhood centers — and these areas also stand to benefit greatly from their presence there. Production is compatible with neighborhood uses, is interesting to see, and fits into small spaces. For communities, this presents a dual opportunity to simultaneously grow this business sector and contribute to neighborhood revitalization efforts.

Many local economic development strategies include support for growing and launching small businesses such as retail shops and professional services. However, small-scale manufacturing is often overlooked by local economic development practitioners — but can be an important piece of any economic development strategy and downtown redevelopment initiative. Similarly, the typical practice of mixed-use development includes retail, office, and residential to promote downtown revitalization, but rarely considers small production businesses as a complementary use. Plans often expel industrial uses outside of downtowns to suburban auto-oriented industrial parks.

But there are examples from around the country that are now turning this notion on its head, demonstrating that manufacturing businesses are not only thriving as a result of being on main street and in mixed-use districts, but are contributing to the character, appeal, and success of walkable neighborhoods.

Small-scale manufacturing has emerged as a way to tie opportunity to place, and can fill a key missing piece in local economic development.

Every place has its own history of skills and capacity. Understanding how to build on that legacy, while keeping up with a dynamic labor market and a changing built environment, are critical challenges facing communities in the 21st century.

Communities of diverse sizes, industries, and market conditions can find success by aligning manufacturing with neighborhood revitalization — but regardless of context, these efforts will be more successful if they include an explicit and deliberate focus on including and harnessing the talents of all their residents including communities of color and different ethnicities who may not be connected to traditional economic development infrastructure.

Communities in the vanguard need to establish a framework that connects manufacturing opportunities with other local goals and priorities. They will also benefit from collecting data to measure performance, where possible, to empower their efforts. Continued action can support an environment conducive to a healthy, independent local manufacturing community.

Download the full report at

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