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Helping Gresham's Small Businesses Lead the Way to Recovery

By Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis
July 16, 2012


It is no secret in our communities that the past few years have brought historic volatility in the investment and lending markets and terrifying national unemployment rates hovering for far too long in the double digits. Given these circumstances, it was easy to forget the basic, reliable element that has always helped us claw out of deep recessions: the entrepreneurial and enterprising spirit of our citizens.

Gresham City Council doubled down on that maxim in 2010 by approving our cutting edge "Garage to Storefront" small business incentive program. The pitch was simple: If you have the next great idea and are ready to bring it to market, we will do everything possible to get out of your way and help you fill a previously vacant storefront in our city.

Cities across the country have a number of fees and charges associated with opening small businesses. These include business license fees, parks, water, and sewer system development charges, traffic impact fees, and building and planning review fees. All of these fees and charges fund important services, but during times of economic uncertainty and tough credit markets, they can be enough of a barrier to market entry that they impede the type of economic growth that we desperately need right now.

Recognizing that these uncharted conditions called for very aggressive measures, Gresham decided to forgive all of these fees and charges for qualifying small businesses. Entrepreneurs opening up shop in previously vacant storefronts in key areas of our city do not owe us a single dollar in fees. While this requires sacrifices in our city budget in order to offset the costs, we reached the conclusion that inaction would be even more expensive in the long run.

The results were quick and clear. In less than three years of existence, the Garage to Storefront program has helped locate 64 new small businesses, including a natural grocer, a cupcake shop, new restaurants, candy and frozen yogurt shops, and boutiques. Not only will these businesses employ local residents and spark new economic activity, but they are exactly the types of businesses that we have worked to attract to our downtown core for years.

While our program was designed to recruit businesses and stimulate economic activity, we also endeavored to improve livability by filling previously vacant and blighted storefronts in our city centers. On this front, the results have been particularly exciting. Businesses locating through this program have collectively filled over 100,000 square feet of retail space. For a visual comparison, these businesses have resurrected roughly eight football fields worth of previously empty, blighted storefronts in key areas of our city.

This recession has been a strong reminder of the importance of responding locally to global economic conditions. Helping small businesses expand and locate in our cities will be fruitful in many other areas of society as well. Along with being efficient economic engines, small businesses are terrific contributors to local non-profit organizations, schools, and community events. In addition, dollars spent locally can circulate many times in the local economy, providing a synergy that cannot be found on the internet or through mega retailers.

Gresham has attracted attention for its efforts to recruit large'scale investment from the clean technology and manufacturing industries, and with good cause. We are home to great traded'sector companies like Microchip Technology, ON Semiconductor, and Boeing. These are fantastic employers and great community partners, but large'scale investment like this is only part of the equation. Small businesses collectively are the largest employer in the United States, and we should never ignore their deep potential to jump'start the economy.

The absolute simplicity of our program makes it duplicable in nearly any city in America. When flexible and aggressive, local governments and small businesses can partner to create vital jobs and economic investment. As we push our collective boundaries and improve the business climates in each of our communities, we will be taking the type of action that is needed to jump'start our enterprising small business owners. Despite our prolonged global economic challenges, the underlying American spirits of creativity and entrepreneurism are alive and well. Sometimes they just need one less obstacle along the way.

For more information about Gresham's incentive program, visit the city's webpage at www.greshamoregon.gov.