Editor’s note: This article is part of a larger series called Solution Stories, which illuminates how Forward Cities is helping to guide in cities across the country. For background on the specific approach taken in communities like New Kensington, please visit the first article in the series here, and Kim’s previous post, Rustbelt Renaissance: The Case of New Kensington, PA.
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. About a year ago, the Westmoreland County Innovation Council set out to discover what barriers exist in the sister cities of New Kensington and Arnold, PA that keep local entrepreneurs 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. The community highlighted that many local businesses are short-lived; they face the danger of closing within a few years of their existence. The Council then designed and co-developed as a testable pilot program, something we call Minimal Viable Solution (MVS), free Small Business 101 training classes to support current local business and help business owners sustain their work and lay the foundations for scaling to the next level. The hope is that by providing them with a diverse and customized offering like this, that is sensitive to the individual needs of the business owners, we will be able to help them overcome common obstacles to success and find an easier and wider path to sustained success.
The Forward Cities team partnered with CO.STARTERS, which offers a three-month, cohort-based program to equip entrepreneurs of all kinds with the insights, relationships, and tools needed to turn ideas into action. The CO.STARTERS curriculum was implemented through the Small Business 101 MVS. At its core, CO.STARTERS takes a peer learning and cohort-style approach that works through varied course material together with a facilitator. Additionally, the CO.STARTERS MVS will unlock a pilot microgrant program for downtown facade improvements or small business practices in New Kensington. Businesses participating in the program will have the opportunity to apply for microgrants to either improve their facade on the Corridor of Innovation or help their businesses take the next step to grow.
An additional objective of the cohort is to give existing businesses the chance to connect with each other and leverage the ecosystem building services that exist through the Penn State programming at The Corner. Multiple partners are participating in the implementation of this MVS through facilitating or speaking at meetings, and providing the subsequent grants. The hope of this MVS is that current small businesses strengthen enough to be able to grow as the local economy grows and new investors come in around them.
In 2020 we are looking to roll out the Small Business 101 classes for New Kensington’s first cohort of small business owners. We are excited to learn from the cohort’s experiences, how it meets their needs, and how future cohorts can be designed as a result. To gauge the impact the program had on the participants of the first cohort, I’ll revisit the process in the spring as they wrap up the classes and look to fully apply what they have learned. Stay tuned – it promises to be a very informative experience!