Village efforts to grow economy
- Published: April 21, 2011
This is the fourth in a series of articles aiming to provide information relevant to the proposed Village levy renewal.
Since the Village property tax levy was passed in 2006, there has been much discussion about the level of growth needed to reinvigorate a healthy village economy. A review of the efforts the Village has made since that time to stimulate economic development could contextualize the levy renewal coming up for a vote on May 3.
The Village has made a concerted effort to promote economic sustainability in Yellow Springs by dedicating resources and staff time to increase the revenue base and promote a more self-sustaining community, according to Village Manager Mark Cundiff. Though the national recession has dampened the effort, and several local businesses have struggled to stay afloat in the village, the Village is committed to the task of rebuilding, according to Village Council President Judith Hempfling in an interview last week.
The Michael Shuman sustainable growth workshops started the effort off in 2007, when villagers were first exposed to thinking of economic development not just as any kind of business growth but socially responsible activity that supports the kind of services Yellow Springs wants for the community. Village Council has worked with the definition used in the 1987 United Nations Brundtland Report to mean “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The Village aims to stimulate an atmosphere that welcomes and supports entrepreneurs and businesses that come out of the strengths of the village, Hempfling said.
“There was this notion that Yellow Springs wasn’t so interested in seeing development here, but that’s changed. The environmental community has realized that driving 40, 50, 60 miles to and from work is not sustainable,” Hempfling said. “Having jobs here enriches the community, brings in money, supports human creativity through the entrepreneurial spirit. I don’t see anybody being anti-business in the village.”
Antioch College is one of the local businesses the Village has tried hard to support.
Since Antioch University began considering closing Antioch College, the Village has supported the college’s rebirth. Village Council passed a resolution urging the university to keep the college open and stating the historic importance the college has had in the community. After the college closed in 2008, Council members spent a lot of time connecting with alumni and working to invigorate local support for the college, Hempfling said. According to Village Manager Mark Cundiff, throughout the college’s reopening, the Village has also stayed attuned to the college’s infrastructure needs, and helped by repairing stormwater lines connected to campus, and continued to talk about the potential for sharing college-community facilities and later possibly creating a local business incubator.
“The reopening of the college is a big component to helping us get back on track again,” Cundiff said, referring to the income taxes, utility consumption and jobs the college has and could provide for the community.
Village leaders have also been meeting with YSI to offer support during its transition toward finding a business partner, Hempfling said. The Village contacted local and state officials to look for help, and according to Cundiff, the Village has let YSI know that the municipality is ready to work with the company if needed.
The Village committed to rebuilding its business base when it allocated $50,000 a year to hire part-time economic sustainability coordinator, Sarah Wildman, in November 2009 to focus on supporting new and existing businesses in Yellow Springs. According to her 2010 Economic Sustainability annual report, Wildman has worked with the college and collaborated with Community Resources and Village Assistant Planner Ed Amrhein to help prepare the Center for Business and Education for infrastructure installment next year. Wildman has also worked with property owners to find the highest use of underdeveloped properties, such as the proposed mixed-use development known as Village Station on Railroad Street, the Barr property on Xenia Avenue and the Wright State University clinic property. And she has worked with several potential new businesses looking to establish at MillWorks.
Wildman has also worked to establish connections to regional organizations, such as the Ohio Department of Development, Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission and Dayton’s Business First to help businesses access workforce training and recruiting, and help with business planning and financing.
Because economic development is her focus, Wildman has the time to build relationships with local businesses and find out what their needs are and try to serve them, said Cundiff, whose duties responding to Village projects and internal needs would not allow him to focus on local businesses. As an example of the need for that position, one of the local businesses Wildman had visited suddenly found out that the space it leased was going to be sold. According to Cundiff, the business could not find other affordable space in town and was preparing to relocate out of town, but because the Village was aware of the business’s need, Wildman put the business in contact with a financial backer who helped the owner buy the property and remain in Yellow Springs.
“A lot of this is relationship building that will hopefully down the line begin to bear some fruit,” Cundiff said.
Planning for the future
The Village also last fall established the Village Economic Sustainability Commission to work with Wildman to address the village’s broader economic needs. The ESC is currently drafting an economic sustainability plan, based on the Village Visioning results, which it hopes to present to Village Council this summer.
According to ESC member Ellen Hoover, one of the plan’s goals is to survey the needs of local businesses at frequent intervals by either a Village staff member or other appointee. This formalized outreach effort would prioritize employers with the highest potential to create high quality jobs in the community, according to the draft plan.
The plan also includes establishing a mentorship program for burgeoning businesses and possibly creating a Small Business Solutions Team to help with identifying investors and other issues. The ESC aims to find ways to help businesses to upgrade and modernize their physical facilities, such as the Antioch Company, Vernay Laboratories and Millworks. And the draft plan also recommends reviewing the economic development tool kit, including incentives for job creation and analytic tools to evaluate the impact of incentives.
The Village is also in the process of reviewing the revolving loan fund criteria and looking for grant money to reactivate the fund, Hempfling said. The Antioch Company helped to initiate the Village revolving loan fund in the 1980s to support local entrepreneurs, but the fund was largely depleted when the Village loaned Community Resources funds to start the CBE in 2005. Council plans to reinvigorate the revolving loan committee, which currently has just one member, and review it for efficacy.
And in order to allow for greater land use flexibility and a more effective process for review of proposed developments, the Village has prioritized the rewriting of the Village Zoning Code. Village Council, the Board of Zoning Appeals and Planning Commission are already pushing forward with the recent request for qualifications from planning firms interested in completing the revision. The Village has allocated $75,000 for the completion of the plan by the outside firm, a job that would take Cundiff three to five years if he were to do it.
The Village and the ESC have also identified in the interest of economic development, the goal of letting the wider public know that Yellow Springs is interested in business in the village. Public perception is one attribute of successful communities documented in the University of North Carolina study, Small Towns, Big Ideas, which according to Hempfling also advocates for building communities with strong schools that can train residents with entrepreneurial skills and the ability to work for and start local businesses.
The amenities and services that Yellow Springs offers draw not only people but also business leaders who value those aspects of community, Hempfling said. People come to Yellow Springs because they can “see themselves living here and running a business here in the same place where people care about environmental issues, and it’s a walkable, kid-oriented community,” she said.
Waiting for the gel
Many of the things the village is currently doing are exactly the type of business supporting activities that Lee Morgan said he would recommend for this community. Morgan, who owned the Antioch Company and is now the chairperson of the Antioch College Pro Tempore Board of Trustees, believes that the most promising economic future for Yellow Springs lies in its educational institutions and the smaller businesses that result from the creative environment established by them.
“I think people have hopes of getting back the Vernay Labs of the world, but that’s not realistic,” Morgan said. “Businesses of the future will probably be intellectually intensive and will need brain power with customized [equipment] and relatively high-paid people who can afford to live in Yellow Springs.”
Cundiff agreed that the needs of larger companies are also more difficult to meet because many require rail access, interstate visibility, or 200,000 square feet of existing warehouse space with loading docks, none of which Yellow Springs has. In addition, according to Morgan, competition among communities all vying for the big companies is fierce.
The way to support the smaller businesses is to invest in the education sector with the public schools, the college, Antioch Midwest and the Nonstop Institute, Morgan said. Networking to help home-grown businesses access both financial support and business advice is also crucial, he said. And the loans should be focused not so much on restaurants/retail businesses but on businesses with a “unique value proposition” that can fill a need not already being met, he said.
Hoover, the former director of development in Springfield, agreed, emphasizing the Village’s need to restructure and reinvigorate the revolving loan fund, which currently has about $30,000, to support those businesses. Local loans could help businesses such as high-tech firms that need a little venture capital to develop their ideas. Privately held research projects have difficulty getting bank loans without having to sell part of the business and intellectual property, Hoover said.
“An economic revolving loan fund would give them a little extra protection — an edge,” said Hoover, who co-owns the commercial business space, MillWorks. “And we need a fund that’s not subject to the pulls and pressures of politics.”
From her personal experience, Hoover said that the outside business community still expresses some trepidation about establishing business in the village. Businesses that have approached her at MillWorks sometimes “have a fear of doing business in the village,” Hoover said. Much of it is due to the comparatively rigorous approval process that Village regulations require for new businesses, but some prospective business owners also fear that Yellow Springs residents will automatically rear their heads at a business that uses any kind of chemicals, she said. Most of MillWorks tenants come from or are collocated in Beavercreek, Xenia, Springfield and other nearby communities that don’t vet their businesses as closely.
The absence of business incentives in Yellow Springs is another issue that Hoover believes should be addressed. While smaller start-up businesses like the ones at MillWorks aren’t generally looking for incentives, larger operations such as YSI do find incentives to be very important.
Speaking from her personal experience as a local business owner, Hoover would like more energy focused on making sure that Yellow Springs is truly prepared to serve the needs of the businesses it says it wants.
“Out of the visioning came a clear sense that the Village wanted job retention and job growth,” she said. “It’s my personal feeling that that should be a number one priority and that there should be more discussion about it — I don’t hear enough to satisfy me.”