Archives for posts with tag: Economic Development

Few higher education institutions rival the power and influence of Harvard University, or its history – this year marks its 375th anniversary.

As an itinerate student of cities and communities, I have long been intrigued by prestigious academic establishments like Harvard and the impact they have on their local communities. With Harvard’s long history as a bastion for innovation and research, the surrounding area has become a natural draw for high profile firms and emerging companies seeking collaborative academic ventures to fuel their growth. This, in turn, leads to job growth and trickle down dollars which support local economic development.

On a recent March visit to Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard’s main campus, I wandered the local streets, jotting notes on my iPhone app while encountering bohemians, academics, and students–some even disguised as St. Patrick’s Day revelers. As one of the estimated 8 million annual visitors to the university and city each year, I found myself entranced by the rich architecture and intellectual vibe that permeated throughout the local culture. There was an aesthetic congruence to the historic streets, parks and town squares that brought engagement to the social fabric of the area, lending support to Cambridge’s distinction as one of the most walkable and vibrant communities in the nation.

Harvard University

Cambridge is home to an estimated population of 105,594, driven largely by the faculty, staff and student community of Harvard. In addition Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a neighboring higher education institution of high repute is just a stones throw away.

Despite a natural abundance of local assets, Harvard and Cambridge have arrived at a crossroads amidst tight budgets as well as fiscal losses to the university endowment. Last year, in response to a plummeting stock market that wrecked havoc on their investments, the university put the kibosh on a $1.4 billion science facility construction project, raising the ire of neighborhood residents who were suddenly surrounded by the eyesore of an abandoned project.

Declining fortunes aside, Harvard continues to plunge ahead with investments designed to solidify its world stature as the premier educational institution in the world. One example of this is a plan to build a $90-$100 million executive education center that will sit on the Harvard Business School campus off Soldiers Field Road. When completed it promises to be a top-tier facility that will only serve to further the business school’s already pristine reputation.

The university’s efforts to build upon stellar assets such as its business school are just another notch in the belt of its global reputation as the world’s most highly revered education establishment. Of greater note, though, is how these efforts translate into a better quality of life for Cambridge and the surrounding communities. A walkable paradise, the area boasts a high per-capita percentage of commuters who walk to work. Cambridge, in particular, has a nearly perfect score in terms of walkability, according to Walkscore.com.

The pedestrian landscape, replete with a traffic-calming mechanism in the city’s downtown core, creates an oasis of urbanity that resonates well with the university’s more stoic academic confines. The infamous Harvard Square is the spoke for community activity and embodies the spirit of Greek agoras—those long ago gathering places that attracted intellectuals, curiosity seekers and people simply passing through. Located at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, Brattle Street and JFK Street, it is a hustle-bustle locale, as well as a feeder system for the Red Line train that travels to and from Boston proper.

Downtown Cambridge, Massachusetts

For voracious readers, the immediate vicinity features a rich collection of bookstores that cater to virtually every interest. There are over twenty-five bookstores situated in a six-mile radius, giving Cambridge the distinction of having more bookstores per capita than any other city in the world. Harvard’s influence is acutely felt in these stores, many of them featuring exclusive sections of books written by the university’s rich cadre of academics—high-profile writers like Clayton Christenson, Howard Gardner, Elizabeth Moss Kanter, and the late Rev. Peter Gomes.

The Harvard factor further extends itself into the region’s demographics, serving as an attraction point for a mosaic of people from every corner of the world. The surrounding city has long been revered for its diverse population – racially, culturally and economically – leading to the frequently used moniker of the “People’s Republic of Cambridge.”

Questions still remain, though, about the future of traditional higher education and its lasting impact on the social fabric of communities like Cambridge. My bet is that the repute of Harvard will continue to attract the best and brightest minds, infusing the surrounding diaspora with a spirit of community, diversity and service that is unmatched anywhere else.

Michael is the editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at The Urban Journalist dot com.

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Last summer a conversation over coffee delivered more than a caffeine buzz. It enlightened me on the struggles currently facing many small businesses. My tablemate, co-owner of a window-cleaning firm, shared his thoughts with me about the regulatory hurdles facing his new five-person business. He rattled off a laundry list of to-do’s—quarterly  tax filings, workers compensation, licensing fees, registrations, and legal and accounting costs. The mounting burden of these fiscal obligations was strangling his business, he said, adding that “We literally have to bring in $13,000 per month for my partner and I to make minimum wage.”

Creating economic opportunity and jobs is the topic on everyone’s agenda these days. At the federal level, fiscal stimulus, a popular Keynesian economic tool, has been tried with little effect. And local government has been equally ineffective, mired in declining tax revenues and mounting deficits. In general popular sentiment suggests that while government cannot ensure substantive job growth, it can play a role in loosening up some of the barriers that stunt businesses growth.

As cities and metropolitan regions seek to recalibrate their strategies amid the current economic downturn, a concept known as “economic gardening” is rapidly gaining traction among job-creation advocates. In short, cities embracing this approach are tasked with connecting new and emerging businesses with the basics resources they need to succeed. This may include grants, market intelligence information, inexpensive startup work space and other key elements required to spur growth.

The basic premise of economic  gardening is that “home grown” entrepreneurs are the true engines of employment expansion. Local economic growth best occurs when the cultivation of local entrepreneurship is emphasized over the attraction of businesses from outside the community.

The genesis of economic gardening dates back a couple of decades, when the city of Littleton, Colorado (pop 41,000) began leveraging its local businesses after the area’s largest employer relocated. Since 1989 this grassroots project has contributed 15,000 jobs to the local economy through the use of non traditional economic development incentives. The success of Littleton has led to a groundswell of similar projects in cities like San Luis Obispo, Santa Fe, Oakland, and Berkeley.

A report from the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan suggests that growing numbers of local cities and towns are also focusing their efforts on existing small businesses rather than trying to persuade new businesses to relocate to their area. This supports the contention of many economic developers that most new jobs in a local economy are being produced by a community’s pool of local small businesses.


So how can economic gardening help cities harvest small business opportunities in their communities? For starters, they can address the complex labyrinth of taxes, fees and regulations imposed on new and existing companies. Reducing the regulatory burdens which cause businesses to struggle to gain traction is critical to moving a city’s economic development efforts forward.

Mark Cuban, an entrepreneur extraordinaire and the mercurial owner of pro basketball’s Dallas Mavericks, has been an outspoken critic of barriers to small business growth. He believes that the reinvigoration of the US economy largely depends on relieving new businesses of the financial start-up burdens that can hinder job creation. In his online site BlogMaverick dot com he espouses the notion of no taxes of any kind on small businesses comprised of 25 or fewer employees. Sales taxes would be collected and remitted, and the business owner would pay income taxes on his or her personal earnings, but corporate earnings would not be taxed. At first glance, this may appear a bit radical; however Cuban’s perspective makes a great deal of sense in terms of helping cash-strapped businesses gain their footing.

Cities can also boost their economic gardening efforts by actively supporting the reuse of empty  storefront and housing stock into shared space for small businesses. In response to the proliferation of Wi-Fi-enhanced coffeehouses as third places for budding entrepreneurs, low-cost shared office settings are sprouting up in local cities throughout the nation. Building off an emerging trend called “co-working,” these sites often serve as incubators of shared collaboration for promising startups and  second-stage companies.

Janna Marlies Santoro, cofounder of the Sacramento-based Think House Collective and an energetic advocate of shared office arrangements for small businesses, believes that small business owners, freelancers, self-employed professionals and other independent workers will be significantly more successful in a community environment where necessary support is readily available. “Independent professionals need support from others to make their business fly,” she says, “regardless of what form that support takes – encouragement, collaboration or feedback on a project. “Co-working provides that environment minus the upfront capital, long-term lease or huge overhead costs.”

Santoro says that amid the layoffs that have affected many people, self-employment often isn’t the first choice. But in a co-working community, that hesitant person can find the courage to pursue an independent career. “People are more comfortable stepping into the freelance role when surrounded by a community that is willing to provide knowledge and expertise, and sometimes even refer clients,” says Santoro.

This spirit of shared small-business support represents a key element of effective economic gardening. It reflects a tradition of collaboration rooted in the startup-rich Silicon Valley—a trend that highlights the value of complementary business clusters and market intelligence. It also illustrates the concept of small business agglomeration, where a dense concentration of a particular industry within a specific geographic region serves as a spark to knowledge spillovers and innovation across firms. One example of  this would be Folsom, California’s success in clustering emerging companies like Altergy Systems and Jadoo Power, which specialize in the rapidly expanding hydrogen fuel cell technology market.

Growing local economies through the harvesting of existing businesses is a wise economic development investment for cities large and small. This idea coupled with untangling the maze of regulations imposed on small businesses can pay huge dividends and put our country back on the road to sowing seeds of plenty.

Michael Scott is the editor of Urban Engagement WebCity.

If the recent conversations at my local coffee house are any indication of the true state of the economy these days, then we are all in for a very long year.

This morning, though, there was a ray of hope from the barista who regularly makes my chai tea latte with soy milk. After sharing morning pleasantries, I asked her about her life outside of work. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that her full-time job was as a surgical scrub tech in the surgery department at a local hospital. She found the position quickly, and it was similar to the work she had done previously in San Francisco. “The money is great,” she remarked, “and I work (at the coffeehouse) on the weekends so that I can unwind.”

Interesting. And symbolic of what recent labor trends suggest: the health industry is continuing to percolate in an otherwise tepid economy.

This trend now has me wondering whether the health care field could be the elixir for our sputtering economic fortunes. Certainly the demand exists relative to recent policy directives for some sort of universal health coverage. But often overlooked in these discussions is the potential impact of thousands of health care jobs being created for a city or region.

The University of Wisconsin Extension and Wisconsin Hospital Association released a new study entitled “Healthy Hospitals, Healthy Communities: The Economic Impact of Wisconsin Hospitals.” According to their research, hospitals in the Badger State have a significant impact on the Wisconsin economy, generating more than $22 billion in economic activity annually and employing more than 100,000 people in communities throughout the state.

In Louisiana, a state that has been buffeted by the twin effects of Katrina and the sagging national economy, efforts are under way to invest in two new badly needed hospitals in New Orleans. Louisiana State University and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are projected to spend a combined $2 billion on the new hospitals, representing the largest single investment in the state since Hurricane Katrina. It is anticipated that this will attract top medical talent to the region and position the city as a hub for biosciences — a net gain of over 2,000 local jobs in health care, research and related services.

This is exactly what our nation needs, a booster shot that will spur job growth and economic vitality to areas that are in dire need. And it’s what the American workforce needs overall — more opportunities for decent salaries, so that people like the barista I met this morning don’t have to sustain themselves on a minimum wage job.