A city that “works for all of us” should be one that cares intently about its business climate.
Conversations with small-business leaders and their advocates affirm that premise, as we consider Mayor Melvin Carter’s vision to fulfill “St. Paul’s promise for every person in every part of our city.”
On these pages, we advocate for what’s possible when people own and operate their own businesses. We believe in the power of enterprise and good jobs to confront disparities and lift people toward prosperity.
Around us, in an increasingly diverse St. Paul, we see assets, including entrepreneurial energy among our various communities, including our newer generations of immigrants.
Staff members at the St. Paul-based Neighborhood Development Center see the energy, too.
”We witness people who are so passionate about making their dream come true,” spokeswoman Elisa Pluhar told us.
It’s not easy, but it’s a realistic dream, she explains. Clients “know exactly what they want to build for themselves, for their families.”
The center, a nonprofit focusing in St. Paul on the East Side and along University Avenue in the Frogtown and Rondo neighborhoods, provides training, help with financing and other services.
Its focus, Pluhar explains, is on “clusters” of opportunities for people who want to open their own businesses in their own neighborhoods. As they do, “they are starting to see more people who look like them and might have a background similar to theirs” venture into business ownership.
“That changes your mindset” to one that says, “I can do this, too,” she told us.
The center isn’t necessarily focused on putting people in office buildings, she explains, but rather on fostering development along commercial corridors where enterprises are “highly visible in the community” and it’s clear that people of color are behind them. Folks start to see that, and it inspires more development, Pluhar said.
“You could look at these businesses as mini engines of economic growth in local neighborhoods,” said Bruce Corrie, the economist and college professor tapped by Mayor Carter to lead the city’s Department of Planning and Economic Development.
Particularly in areas of concentrated poverty around the city, minority and immigrant-owned businesses are “widening the economic base. As they grow, neighborhoods grow and as neighborhoods grow, the city grows,” said Corrie, who is known for his work on the economic contributions of immigrants and ethnic minorities.
He notes that minority-owned businesses generally have lower average sales than their non-minority-owned counterparts. They face challenges that include their ability to access resources, as well as “cultural barriers of the past and present.” Still, Corrie said, they are “growing in numbers quite rapidly,” providing jobs and adding to wealth.
“We have the ability to nurture these economic assets. That’s where the city and state can play a very important role,” Corrie told us. “We do have elements of a good infrastructure that can help meet the needs of business, but we need to deepen that to make sure that we are capturing the range of businesses that are out there.”
We spoke recently with federal, state and local leaders working in the arena. Among them is Mike Ryan, director of the Small Business Development Center at the University of St. Thomas. It’s one of nine regional centers throughout the state, all with similar college or university connections.
Many businesses get started with owner funding, but credit availability is essential for enterprises to grow, Ryan explained. That’s an ongoing issue, while market forces present additional challenges. Included now are the difficulty some small business owners are experiencing in finding workers, as well as uncertainty while additional government-mandated workplace rules and costs are implemented in St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Despite such challenges, it’s acknowledged that small businesses are creating most of the new jobs and opportunities in our communities.
“And if we’re thinking about the future, given our demographic shifts, we really have to focus on supporting these minority-owned businesses,” as well as those owned by women, Gary Cunningham, president and CEO of the Minneapolis-based Metropolitan Economic Development Association, told us.
Writing last year on entrepreneurship and the racial wealth gap, Cunningham, whose organization works with minority entrepreneurs, said we need to “ensure that our country’s systems for creating wealth and opportunity work equally well for everyone. The worse these systems work for people of color, the more likely it is that the capitalistic engines driving our nation’s economy will sputter.”
As St. Paul faces the future, attention to entrepreneurial energy is well placed. A city that positions diversity, cultures, languages and people as assets, is better able to thrive.