Inclusive Economic Development
Wilmington’s new City Council should create a committee whose sole focus is Wilmington’s economic recovery through and beyond the COVID pandemic. Among that committee’s focuses should be:
Strategies for helping small business that had to temporarily close as a result of the stay-at-home order and for assisting the creation of successor small businesses in the spaces of small businesses that tragically were forced to shutter. Mayor Purzycki is to be commended for putting his Office of Economic Development team to work, as soon as COVID-19 hit, helping Wilmington small businesses access state and federal emergency funds. There are Wilmington small businesses that are open today because of that team’s efforts. We are not out of the woods, however. We need to continue to support our small businesses that have managed to survive the pandemic and we need to encourage new entrepreneurs to step forward and attempt the difficult task of replacing some of our neighborhood-defining small businesses that have, most unfortunately, fallen victim to the virus.
Though Delaware has begun a phased re-opening, Wilmington businesses remain restricted in their operations and the services they can offer in numerous ways. Cities do not have the resources available to state governments and particularly the federal government to assist, and Wilmington is no different in that regard, but cities across the country are finding creative ways to leverage philanthropic funds, their local financial sector and re-purposed federal dollars to provide critical small business lifelines in the form of low-interest and zero-interest loans and grants. Other cities are facilitating small businesses’ access to existing resources, by centralizing information on web portals and conducting webinars. In terms of supporting successor small businesses where existing small businesses have been forced to close, Wilmington could benefit from the example of cities that are experimenting with quick permitting for pop-up businesses, particularly “use-for-use” quick permits for new small businesses that want to put an old small business’s space to its same prior use (a new restaurant where an old restaurant was, a new retail store where an old retail store was).
Strategies for blue-collar job creation in the city and for encouraging employees who work in the city to live where they work. Coming out of this economic crisis, Wilmington should aim to fundamentally change over time its traditional inflow-outflow economy, in which so many of those who work in the city leave every evening and so many of those who live in the city are forced to look outside of the city for work. The commuter outflow at night and on the weekends hurts Wilmington’s local businesses, deprives our downtown of the vitality it ought to have and creates a social void outside of regular business hours that invites crime. The necessity to seek work outside of the city is a major burden for many city residents who lack the transportation necessary to work and support their families, if the only work available to them is outside of the city.
As it should, the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development currently takes into consideration whether businesses are minority-owned or disadvantaged in deciding whether to offer incentives to locate in Wilmington. Going forward, the Office of Economic Development should also consider whether a business intends to employ individuals – and how many – with employee profiles like those of Wilmington residents looking for jobs. All jobs brought to Wilmington increase the City’s wage-tax revenues, but jobs brought to the city that are filled by city residents enhance economic mobility and opportunity in our city and stabilize families and neighborhoods. That is the definition of a win-win-win investment.
In addition to doing what it can to attract jobs to Wilmington that Wilmington residents are likely to fill, the City should do what it can to encourage investment in Wilmington’s residents and their skills. Lack of control over our schools is a major impediment in this regard, but that does not mean that there are not important steps we can take. As policy director to Governor Jack Markell, I contributed to the creation of Delaware’s Pathways program that brings public and private resources to the table to create supportive pathways, including training and on-the-job-experience, for high school students from school into rewarding long-term employment. Thinking along these lines, Wilmington should follow the example of cities across the country who are partnering with their local businesses and local community colleges to understand the skills employers are looking for and to make pathways to the acquisition of those skills available to their residents.
Wilmington should also do what it can to make it worthwhile for those who work in Wilmington to live in Wilmington. Nearby cities like Philadelphia have very successful live-where-you-work programs that encourage those who work in the city to live in the city. They are programs that Wilmington should emulate. Making Wilmington a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week city means making it a place where as many people pack our restaurants for Sunday dinner as fill them for Tuesday lunch and as many people go to our neighborhood coffee shops to start their weekend as their work week.