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Go to Town

Be good to your city, and it will be good to you.

When the civic leaders of Dayton, Ohio, noticed their city's population was trickling out to the suburbs in the early 1990s, they put their heads together to prevent their downtown from becoming a ghost town. Their efforts exploded in the late '90s with a new stadium, a $32 million riverfront development project, a new performing arts center, and new downtown housing. And all along the way, entrepreneurs were involved.

As an entrepreneur, the first thought on your mind might not be the health of your city, but it should be. If your town thrives, your business is rewarded with a larger customer base and a better potential work force. Your business then gives back by hiring more local workers and contributing more taxes. And one of the key elements to fostering a healthy city is to attract the creative folks who will start and work in innovative businesses.

"In every town, there are people who say 'You can't do that here,' to foster the status quo," says Rod Frantz, president of Philadelphia-based Richard Florida Creativity Group. "People who try to enforce old precepts on their most creative populations will end up driving away their best and brightest. If entrepreneurs can help remove barriers to innovation, they'll be doing a great service to their communities."

Kirk Olson, a senior cultural analyst at Minneapolis trends research firm Iconoculture Inc., explains the relationship between a great town and great workers: "Think of it as a sort of cultural compensation package. When your people leave work, do they have anything to do besides go home and flip on American Idol? Businesses would be wise to work with their chambers of commerce to help local restaurateurs and nightclub owners."

Providence, Rhode Island, has been undergoing major redevelopment for more than 15 years. "[The revitalization efforts were] done for the city's own sake," says Kip Bergstrom, executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Policy Council. "But it has had the effect of bringing in visitors [and] more residents, and creating the foundation for a new economic base."

The newest generation of workers, says Bergstrom, want quality cities and the chance to help build those cities. "By being part of that [building process], entrepreneurs are modeling a behavior that's attractive to their current and prospective workers." For example, members of the Rhode Island Technology Council, a private/public partnership designed to stimulate technology and innovation, have worked hundreds of hours with local secondary schools and colleges to help create a tech-savvy work force.

"Entrepreneurs, like artists, are the first wave of creating a new order," says Robert J. Leaver, founder of Providence consulting firm New Commons and the driving force behind the Entrepreneurship Forum of New England, an entrepreneurial guild designed to connect creative business minds to share resources, opportunities and knowledge. "The most engaging business and economic development in the city is led by entrepreneurs applying their creative minds to produce innovation."

Back in Dayton, "companies large and small participated in the [revitalization] projects by sitting on planning committees and through personal and company contributions," says Sandra K. Gudorf of the Downtown Dayton Partnership, the planning and management organization for downtown Dayton. Local professionals donate their time and talent to help other entrepreneurs through its i-Zone program, which offers a $100,000 business plan contest, networking events, mentoring, and a program that links small and midsize companies with large, local corporations for sales opportunities.

Bergstrom thinks it's up to entrepreneurs to take over the civic duties that big businesses used to fulfill. "The days of big-business domination of public life are over. So who's going to fill that vacuum? The greatest source of energy to enrich the civic realm is in the entrepreneurial community."

Donate your time and know-how to help new companies get a leg up. Sponsor arts events. Look into a new location in an area undergoing redevelopment. Join planning committees. You've built a great business; now use that knowledge to help build a great city.

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This article was originally published in the May 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Go to Town.

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