Over the last few decades, the Commonwealth’s “Gateway Cities” — older, industrial cities like Brockton, Fall River, Holyoke and Worcester — have benefitted from the largest wave of immigration since the early 1900s. But whereas newcomers a century ago found good jobs in mills and factories, today’s New Americans have far fewer opportunities. Nonetheless, they still come with a healthy appetite for risk and reward. In this weak economy, more and more immigrants rely on their entrepreneurial instincts and start their own businesses.
This is apparent in downtowns and Main Streets in many Gateway Cities, where immigrant-owned businesses occupy once-vacant storefronts. Revitalizing these central business districts has been an economic development goal for decades. Thanks to these immigrant entrepreneurs, “buy local” movements and new Internet marketing platforms for small shopkeepers, that goal could finally be within reach.
Small shops will never be able to replace factories as economic engines, but it’s important not to minimize the value a strong retail district creates. These areas become an amenity that makes housing more attractive to working families and downtowns more appealing to employers.
These small retails shop can also serve as a launching pad, propelling immigrant entrepreneurs on to bigger enterprises. Often they’ll export products back to their native countries, bringing new dollars into our local economy. With only modest long-term growth forecast in the U.S., these linkages to rapidly developing countries are vital for increasing wealth here in Massachusetts.
The key to successful urban economic development is recognizing a community’s unique strengths and capitalizing on them. For Gateway Cities across Massachusetts, immigrant entrepreneurship is one of those strengths. Immigrant business owners face unique barriers navigating our regulations and obtaining financing.
Economic development agencies can help them overcome these hurdles. In communities with diverse immigrant groups, economic development agencies can also play a vital role in bridging cultural differences, helping to form a cohesive business community that can work together to everyone’s benefit.