Is your community open for business?

I visit a lot of rural communities. Most of them are trying to chart a path for themselves in the Knowledge Economy. But there is still a lot of stovepipe thinking going on. Economic developers are rarely talking to town planners. Town planners are rarely talking to business people. Hardly anyone is talking to work at home businesspeople.

No one cares about broadband. Let me repeat that. Businesspeople that are engaged in the new economy don't care about broadband. What they care about is being able to meet their customers needs and expectations. Broadband is needed to do that, but broadband is not really an issue for them--what they are able to do with it is an issue.

What I'm trying to say is that broadband is simply one part of a bigger picture for communities, and the bigger picture, for the entrepreneurial, microenterprise businessperson (remember that small businesses are creating 75% of new jobs), is that they need a bunch of amenities and services in a community to be able to meet their customer needs and expectations. It's never just one thing (like broadband).

What are some of those things? Here's my list:

  • Affordable,world class business office space -- Some of you are already thinking, "We've got our incubator." I am thinking about incubators, but too many that I visit are heavy on the industrial look and feel, and short on the kinds of finishing details that are not always expensive but that project, "We're doing business here." Many communities, instead of putting slab-steel siding buildings far out of town in a former industrial park, would be much better off rehabbing empty buildings on Main Street, like they did in Norton, Virginia, where they rehabbed a 1920s era hotel, got tax credits to do so, won awards for excellence, and are filling the space faster than they can finish the next floor.
  • Once you get some businesses downtown, you need a great coffee shop, like the one in Franklin, Pennsylvania started by someone who just moved back to their hometown after ten years in California. Coffee shops with great coffee, an upscale ambiance, and a private meeting room are a key requirement of work at home businesspeople, who need a place to meet clients, have a light lunch, or just "get out of the office" to do some work.
  • You need a clean, well-lit place to get a quick, hot breakfast. Businesspeople travel, and not everyone wants to eat donuts and biscuits at the free breakfast buffet at the motel by the interstate. And a lot of business gets done at breakfast, and the buffet room in the motel is not conducive to that.
  • Business lunches and dinners are also important. Clients do come to the community to visit work at home businesspeople, and that means the community needs an upscale restaurant for more formal business lunches and dinners. Just one good restaurant in a community makes all the difference to businesspeople.
  • Business visitors to a community want more news that one can get out of the local paper. The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and at least one "big city" paper should be available in easy to find locations, like the coffee shop or the breakfast eatery.
  • Copying and printing services are the lifeblood of "just in time" Knowledge Economy businesses. The value of being able to walk into a Kinko's and get things printed right from a CD or a laptop is invaluable. Does your community have a local copying/printing store that offers these services and is easy to find?
  • Public WiFi access is critical. Visiting businesspeople want to be able to check their email, catch up on news from the Web, and take care of business via the Internet. Can a visitor easily find a hotspot in your community? Is there a place to sit down and work?
  • A good place to stay is also important. A B&B is fine if the town is too small to support a hotel, but the B&B owners need to know about the needs of businesspeople. Rooms should have a phone (for privacy and dial out Internet access), and a desk is essential--too many B&B rooms have no place to sit and work.
  • A great community Web site portal with up to date local news and information (e.g. where to eat, where to find a hotspot, where to find copy services, where to buy a newspaper) is a vital economic development marketing tool. It telegraphs to businesspeople that the community is progressive and understands the Knowledge Economy.
  • Finally, affordable broadband, as always, is critical.

Today, hundreds of entrepreneurs and small businesspeople are thinking of moving back to a smaller community with good quality of life. How many things on this list does your community have? Have you re-oriented your economic development strategies to ensure your community has the kinds of amenities that businesspeople want and expect?