Ilana Preuss founded Recast City in 2014 to help build communities where small-scale manufacturing businesses could thrive. The challenges, she found, were steep. “6½ years ago, when I talked about small-scale manufacturing and product businesses, nobody knew what I was talking about,” she recalls. City support for small manufacturers was limited; zoning often didn’t support their needs for space; inclusive job pipelines were not common. Given the challenges present for small manufacturers across the board, it was even harder for manufacturers of color and from marginalized communities not only to start a successful business, but help build wealth in communities that have historically been marginalized.
One opportunity Preuss identified “is that [small scale manufacturing] is not an established business sector,” she says. “So when you say, ‘Let’s pull together a group of small-scale manufacturing business owners,’ and you work with the community to make sure those business owners represent the demographic diversity of the community, there’s no entrenched interest that we’re displacing.”
That has meant space for innovation, advocacy, and intentionally inclusive talent development as many cities look to better support small-scale manufacturers. Here are four solutions that emerged to better serve BIPOC manufacturers to gain a foothold in this quickly-growing space.
Harnessing local business support
When Preuss begins working with a community hoping to better support small manufacturers, she reaches out to any and all groups providing local business development support to get them in the same room and on the same page. “In most communities, the business development support is very disjoined … there’s a lot of different siloes and they’re almost never looking to product businesses to invest time and energy in,” she noted.
In Columbia, Missouri, consulting for a commercial hub coined “The Loop,” she helped identify those gaps. “The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce wasn’t involved with the downtown start-up training programs — there were language and location barriers — and the Black-owned businesses newer to the area didn’t feel connected to the existing trainings going on.” Getting everyone in the same room not only identified how to better distribute resources; it helped identify the support marginalized manufacturers needed but weren’t getting. “There was a huge demand for space to cook,” Preuss says. It resulted in a commercial shared kitchen, which opened during COVID-19, with the goal to provide affordable space and support to Black and Latinx manufacturers who most needed it to grow their businesses.
Advocacy for zoning reform
Cities, by and large, have been slow to update zoning codes to accommodate the evolution of small-scale manufacturing. (Today, manufacturing can mean everything from commercial food production, robotic development and 3-D printing.) And if a city wants equitable job growth, it has to zone for it.
A few cities adopted promising models. In San Francisco, the city passed the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan in 2009 to protect industrial zones in the east side of the city. In 2013, the nonprofit SFMade advocated the city to build more, resulting in “inclusionary industrial zoning” in which a developer could build office space — not previously allowed on industrial sites — if they agreed to include affordable industrial space. That resulted in the Manufacturing Foundry at 150 Hooper, 50,000-square-feet of affordable manufacturing space coupled with business development support provided by SFMade.
In Newark, the city is building its first “Makerhood,” an affordable mixed-use development with light manufacturing space and apartments. The city and developer worked five years to craft the zoning, which includes a requirement that building tenants must also live there — a way to prioritize local manufacturers in Newark, many of whom are people of color. The developer also founded a nonprofit, Makerhoods Inc., to support the city’s existing maker community and provide future support to those selected to live and work in the building.
Developing diverse hiring pipelines
The largest tenant at the Manufacturing Foundry at 150 Hooper is Humanmade, a maker space with wood and metal shops, laser and 3D printing areas, industrial sewing and electronics stations, alongside a priority to make those resources available to marginalized communities. Still too often in manufacturing, “employers believe there is a skill gap — but as a team we see there’s more of an opportunity gap,” notes SFMade’s workforce and youth program manager George Colón. Humanmade’s Next Generation Manufacturing Skills Training recruits people traditionally shut out of the modern manufacturing sector, with no prior experience, and trains them with the skills necessary to achieve employment.
The Forge, a makerspace in Greensboro, North Carolina, developed a pre-apprenticeship program specifically to support under-connected residents across the county with workforce opportunities. Participants who succeed are then placed in a full time, paid apprenticeship. SJ Works, a city program offered in San José, California, launched several years back to bring teens in gang-impacted neighborhoods into industries like manufacturing, tech and healthcare. In early 2020, it expanded with a mentoring program to further support job readiness, workplace skills, financial literacy and career exploration for youth.
Moving toward community ownership
As the Rainier Beach Action Coalition worked toward more inclusive economic development in Rainier Beach, Seattle, community members focused on development of a neighborhood “food innovation district” — an area that “clusters manufacturing, technology, and food sectors around the light rail station to provide access to career-path living-wage jobs, strengthening the local economy through production rather than consumption,” as the Black-led coalition puts it. One key component was figuring out how to develop such a site under community ownership, to ensure development decisions, finances and operations were determined by the neighborhood.
Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative provided funding for the coalition to capacity build around their goal, then granted $2.1 million this year for the coalition to purchase light-rail-adjacent land that will become the Food Innovation Center, a neighborhood-led project intended to serve as a catalyst to the development of a Food Innovation District. The future manufacturing, production and community space will be the result of an “authentic, deep community engagement process,” according to Gregory Davis, managing strategist of the coalition. “We anticipate that being a process of 18 months … we knew this needs to be community led.”
This article is part of Elements of an Equitable Recovery, a series on solutions helping small, especially woman- and minority-owned, businesses survive and thrive. This series is generously underwritten by LISC. Update: We’ve clarified the name of the project that Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative funded: It is one building, the Food Innovation Center, not the entire Food Innovation District. We’ve also corrected the street address of the Manufacturing Foundry in San Francisco.