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Recast City’s Program Helps Communities Revitalize Their Downtowns Through Small-Scale Manufacturing

Euclid, Ohio, population 49,500, has seen better days. Once home to a thriving manufacturing-based economy, the fortunes of the rust belt city, located near Cleveland, have waned since the 1970’s. The city’s downtown is filled with vacant or underutilized storefronts.

But last year, Kirsten Holzheimer-Gail, Euclid’s mayor, took a decisive step to revitalize the community. That’s when she and two colleagues joined Recast City’s 12-month-long program for struggling communities trying to place small-scale manufacturers in downtown storefronts, the better to boost the local economy. “We want to reinvigorate the area and build back an entrepreneurial spirit,” she says.

Along with three other communities, Gail learned how to identify and reach out to local residents and businesspeople with deep connections in the community and entrepreneurs who might be interested in setting up shop in a downtown storefront. With just a few weeks to go in the program, the five fledgling Euclid enterprises are set to open up for business soon.

Gail is one of many elected officials, local business leaders and economic development folks who have participated in Recast City’s program. Launched in 2019, it aims to help communities build strong downtowns by building up a base of resilient small-scale manufacturers, ranging from coffee roasters to artisans, working out of storefronts. “This is a new way to help communities figure out their why—why is our main street here? What should we do with it?” says Recast City founder Ilana Preuss. She recently launched the latest cohort, with two—including Gail’s—just wrapping up.

Crucial to the program is a trio of elements. First is the emphasis on small-scale manufacturers. That especially includes those with online sales, so they can survive while their brick and mortar presence ramps up, and the ability to allow consumers the chance to see stuff being made onsite. Second is providing community participants with not just training, but also extensive help implementing their plans. Last is creating a more equitable economic development process by focusing on building more entrepreneurial opportunities for marginalized communities. “By investing in these local businesses, they can become the epicenter of local economic growth,” says Preuss. She also is the author of Recast Your City: How to Save Your Downtown with Small-Scale Manufacturing (Island Press June 2021).

Cool Factor

Preuss developed the germ of the idea while doing research into how to fill storefronts in struggling downtowns for nonprofit Smart Growth America. She investigated everything from tech firms to traditional retail, but eventually decided that small manufacturers, “making anything from handbags to hardware,” as she puts it, had the most potential. Most promising were businesses where shoppers could see items being produced, an experience Preuss describes as having “the cool factor.” “That becomes a huge draw, when you can look in the window and watch things being made,” she says.

She also realized that, if businesses also sold via ecommerce, they would have multiple revenue sources, helping them to be less dependent on foot traffic. That last part would be especially important for the early days of downtown development, when the number of in-person shoppers typically is small and businesses need other channels for making sales. In other words, it’s an answer to the age-old downtown development question: How do the first stores survive if there isn’t enough foot traffic?

Also, finding enterprises to fill the storefronts required that city planners reach out to more than the usual suspects. Instead they would have to contact a diverse array of community members for suggestions.

A Cohort-Based Approach

With that in mind, Preuss founded Recast City in 2014. At first, she only did one-on-one engagements. But, after five years, she realized she couldn’t provide the necessary breadth of support to enough participants if the work was done one at a time. So in 2019, she launched the cohort program with the aim of providing a process and framework for creating and implementing downtown revitalization plans. For the first cohort, she worked with sponsors the Etsy Impact Fund and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth for the Etsy Maker Cities Program. From the beginning, it was virtual, the better to include far-flung participants. “I was living on Zoom well before the pandemic,” she says.

Other advantages to the approach: Participants could benefit from the camaraderie of a cohort experience, as well as picking up useful suggestions from their colleagues.

Framework and Camaraderie

That’s certainly been Gail’s experience. For example, fellow participants suggested she start out with a holiday pop-up to introduce the entrepreneurs to the community and provide a way to get started. The move proved to be especially helpful, since the opening of the building slated to house them has been delayed, thanks to supply chain delays.

Also helpful, according to Gail, was the process for identifying small-scale manufacturers in the community. Local “connectors’ introduced Gail and her colleagues to a variety of jewelry makers, clothing designers, bakers and others. After meeting with them one-on-one, they zeroed in on five entrepreneurs, who then received training in such basics as writing a business plan and setting pricing.

“We would never have gotten this far without the framework we followed and the camaraderie we experienced,”   says Gail.

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