Across the country, community-led revitalization is gaining momentum; residents are helping to turn declining downtowns into models of growth and opportunity by supporting their home-grown microbusinesses.
But in order to implement solutions, communities need to take stock of their strengths and honestly pinpoint their struggles, which is exactly what New Kensington, PA has done. In early 2019, the Westmoreland County Innovation Council set out to discover what barriers exist in the sister cities of New Kensington and Arnold, PA that keep both local entrepreneurs and prospective job seekers from accessing the appropriate resources to more fully participate in revitalization efforts.
Known as the “Aluminium City” during New Kensington’s post-WWI economic heydays, the aluminum-giant Alcoa was the major local employer. Stories of a booming and safe downtown are told by long-term community members. New Kensington was a regional weekend destination, remembered by residents as the “good old days” when New Kensington was the place to be. With the decline of industry and the move of Alcoa out of the community in the 1970s and 80s, the booming downtown left with it. Since that time, there has been a steep decline resulting in a barren downtown. The community had little hope that there would be meaningful change, but the people of New Kensington love their community.
Noticeably, starting at the beginning of this decade, several stakeholders began to pay attention again to the value of New Kensington and what it has to offer. Early investors started opening businesses, buying buildings, and making the community their home. The staff of the local Penn State – New Kensington campus began to craft a vision for the downtown area, now called the “Corridor of Innovation,” as a center for entrepreneurs and technology opportunities. They opened The Corner, an entrepreneurial coworking space in New Kensington’s downtown area that provides small business support to the community. Together, they laid the foundation for the downtown business ecosystem and introduced a new vision for New Kensington that focuses on innovative technology.
Along with county, city, foundation, university, and business stakeholders, Forward Cities was engaged to activate the different parts of the emerging entrepreneurial ecosystem, which itself is embedded in a broader set of initiatives underway that seek to benefit all residents. The Innovation Council, made up of local stakeholders and community members, identified several barriers to entrepreneurship in New Kensington. They also highlighted challenges to employment many residents of New Kensington faced. Using this information, they collectively developed a set of strategies to be tested as Minimal Viable Solutions (MVSs).
The three MVSs the Council settled on were as follows:
- Jumpstart to Success was developed to meet the needs of job seekers who lacked the requisite soft skills necessary to be gainfully employed in living wage jobs. A multi-pronged partnership was developed with Auberle, CareerLink, and a number of local support providers to deliver cohort-based trainings to anyone interested in taking part. The program proved so successful that two additional cohorts were run and Auberle has decided to set it up permanently in New Kensington.
- A Communication Hub is being designed to capture a multitude of services and resources that can serve local residents, including entrepreneurial resources, job opportunities, and a number of social services.
- The Small Business 101 program was built in coordination with The Corner, a coworking space in downtown New Kensington, and CO.STARTERS, a national service provider for small businesses. This partnership melded the local convening power of one entity and the high quality programming of another to create a highly effective (and now permanent) program to support small business knowhow.
The success of the New Kensington work, which for most intents and purposes Forward Cities completed in June 2020, serves as a tremendous model for other micropolitans across the country. The challenges these less significantly resourced communities face in trying to create a competitive advantage in the entrepreneurial space can be overcome with clear alignment as well as the activation of national and (potentially) regional resources.
Project Manager, Inclusive Innovation
Kim Louis is an entrepreneur and nonprofit director in New Kensington, PA with 27 years of experience working in the nonprofit sector and with at-risk youth. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies from the University of Pittsburgh and a Master of Arts in Youth Ministry from Trinity School for Ministry. She has worked as a Behavioral Specialist in autism for Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and a Youth Ministry Consultant for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. She is the Founding Director of Sonward Youth Programs in New Kensington, PA, working with kids in the neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates in the county. She created a tiered mentorship program where kids can move from participants to interns to staff. Currently, the daily operations of the program are partially run by staff who started out as program participants. Kim has been married to her husband, Dave, since 2004 and together they are raising their four adopted children who are all high school aged. She completed a two year engagement in ecosystem building in New Kensington in 2020. She continues to work with Forward Cities supporting equitable redevelopment in other rust belt communities in Pennsylvania.
The New Kensington work was graciously supported by the RK Mellon Foundation.