Small Business Strategy Taking Shape

Spring is here, a time of year when neighborhood businesses start opening their patios and setting out signage. A small business initiative called Chicago Anchors for a Strong Economy (CASE), has come one year after the launch of another small business city initiative called SEED Chicago, which supports the seed funding of local businesses through KickStarter, an online fundraising campaign.

The CASE program is unique in that it will target companies located in neighborhoods outside of the Loop that are creating business-to-business solutions. The goal is to turn these B2B companies into anchor institutions within Chicago neighborhoods. While CASE businesses may be small, needing only three employees to qualify, they must have at least $1.5 million in revenues before participating in CASE. It’s all part of a University of Chicago program called UChicago Local that provides mentorship and training to local businesses.

The popular H Dogs in Bronzeville is one of their target businesses. Chef Clifford Rome is part of a team of chefs who opened H Dogs on 47th and King Drive in 2011. Rome, who grew up in Englewood, was attracted to Bronzeville’s character and historic architecture and decided to open a restaurant in the neighborhood for that reason. He and his team are planning to open a new restaurant called Peaches near H Dog early this summer.

Rome says that he was approached by the University of Chicago, who told them about the program. It got him thinking about the program as a Mayor’s initiative, and he began creating a checklist of the things that he wanted to do, such as hiring people from within the community, in an effort to further support the neighborhood.

We are already doing it,” says Rome, “we buy our local cakes and breads from Bill Balls [Abundance] Bakery, we take our dry cleaning over to 47th Street Cleaning, and we bank at Illinois Service Federal, so we understand the commitment of the community.

This isn’t the Mayor’s Office’s first initiative targeting small businesses owners. Last April, the City of Chicago and World Business Chicago collaborated on a project to support local businesses called SEED Chicago. The goal of SEED Chicago is to raise awareness of funding channels for local businesses through coordinated KickStarter campaigning. Last year, most of the KickStarter campaigners met their fundraising goals and over $200,000 was raised for projects like a South Chicago Arts and Crafts Fair, Geek Bar in Lincoln Park, and several neighborhood gardening projects.

David Zoltan is the ‘Fleet Admiral’ at Geek Bar, which will open this Spring. Being part of SEED Chicago was like having the Mayor’s endorsement, says Zoltan, and “that settled the nerves of a great number of investors.” Finding support for Geek Bar wasn’t exclusively about raising funds on KickStarter or finding supporters in Lincoln Park.

Support wasn’t neighborhood specific at all–we have supporters all over the city, some out of state, some in the suburbs, says Zoltan.

Geek Bar isn’t part of the technology sector, but they have embraced the drive to grow technology in Chicago by installing amenities, such as high-speed wi-fi, to create an atmosphere where people talk about cool or new technology.

Looking at the city as a whole, the broad range of activities within ‘small business development’ points to the need for a coordinated strategy and public plan for growing small businesses. Within SEED Chicago alone, small business initiatives have involved education and mentorship, funding, co-working, and neighborhood fairs and festivals. There are dozens of organizations in Chicago devoted to developing small businesses ― from the Neighborhood Business Development Centers to neighborhood chambers of commerce to the Local Industrial Retention Initiative (LIRI) Councils, but data on their activities isn’t widely available.

Coordinating the development of small business is addressed in the City of Chicago Neighborhood Small Business Growth Strategy, but the strategy isn’t as publicly built out as, for example, the City of Chicago Technology Plan.  

A small business strategy seems to be taking shape, however, with co-working spaces and networking activities for small business owners concentrated in the downtown area and neighborhood development groups throughout the city focused on providing advice and monitoring retention of small businesses in their communities. ❒

[Cover Photo: of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel speaking about CASE on March 17th, 2014. Image courtesy of World Business Chicago; Other photos at H Dogs in Bronzeville.]

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