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Knight Cities Bring Renewed Creativity to Business Basics

Written by Amanda Maher

Death of the Bench. The Art of Asphalt. The Word Wall.

On the surface, these abstract ideas have little in common. Yet upon closer examination, these projects all share one common theme: to help their cities become more vibrant, prosperous places for residents and businesses alike.

These ideas are three of the 126 winners of the recent Knight Cities Challenge. This challenge, supported by the Knight Foundation, splits $5 million among a range of bold ideas that have the potential to transform their communities.

Knight Foundation research finds that prosperous cities have three key features: a talented workforce, access to economic opportunity, and robust community engagement. To qualify for the Knight Cities Challenge applicants had to focus on at least one of those key elements and propose ideas that would benefit one of Knight’s 26 target communities. Otherwise, the stage was wide open.

And rightly so. The competition sparked wildly creative ideas. But after reviewing the list of winners, one trend became clear – the need to support the urban entrepreneur.

Proposals ranged in how they would do so, but nearly every city had at least one winning proposal that focused on growing the business community and providing entrepreneurs with the resources needed to succeed.

In Philadelphia, the Enterprise Center Community Development Corporation is looking to create a restaurant incubator, appropriately named Common Table, which provides low-risk space for aspiring restaurateurs to test their concepts without taking on inordinate debt to do so. Meanwhile, creation of the Soul Food Restaurant Incubator will repurpose a vacant former restaurant into a shared commercial kitchen space in Gary, Indiana. The incubator is designed to stimulate entrepreneurship, create jobs and serve as an anchor tenant in a downtown area that still struggles to reinvent itself.

Elsewhere, grant winners have proposed a host of ideas to help link entrepreneurs to capital – from traditional (monetary) capital to social capital. The Social Capital Investment Bank in Grand Forks, N.D., for instance, draws on local volunteers who lend expertise to local business owners in order to help them launch, strengthen and grow their companies.

Detroit is the most heavily represented of the Knight Cities, with a total of 25 ideas selected as finalists. It’s no surprise that many are geared toward the inner city entrepreneur. The “Brand Camp Pop-Up” will bring multi-day training and a mentoring company to startups and small businesses in Detroit’s most underserved neighborhoods, with a particular focus on helping these firms brand their companies and create online identities. Another concept draws on the “pop-up” model: “ProsperU$Det Innovation Stations” will use “opportunity kiosks” as a place where entrepreneurs can pitch their ideas to residents. Residents will then vote on their favorite ideas, and winners will receive small loans, subsidized rent and entrepreneurial training.

While all 126 selected strategies will provide benefit to their communities, those focused on entrepreneurship and small business growth are particularly beneficial to inner city communities. For more than 20 years, ICIC has studied urban economies and the businesses that thrive there. The importance of capital cannot be overstated—research finds that 71% of inner city companies are dramatically undercapitalized, operating with only one-quarter of the capital compared to their industry peers.

So as the 26 Knight cities hone ideas around economic opportunity and inclusion, we applaud the focus on business attraction and expansion. Specifically, efforts around firm development are key: building networks of like-minded entrepreneurs, connecting CEOs to management education, and drawing additional capital are the first steps in creating vibrant, sustainable communities.

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