EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 23, 2014

Column: Immigrant entrepreneurship is a strength of Gateway Cities

Ben Forman and Marcia Hohn
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — 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.

Economic development leaders looking to give this approach a try can turn to cities like Dayton, Ohio, and Des Moines, Iowa, where they’ve been working to put in place innovative immigrant entrepreneurship strategies. Closer to home, there are also some models worth a look: Lowell’s immigrant entrepreneurship initiative was the centerpiece of an application for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Cities Challenge. Together with MassINC, the Immigrant Learning Center and the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, Lynn recently piloted an immigrant entrepreneurship project with a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Studying other examples can be informative and inspirational, but other communities have struggled to marshal the resources to make this work effective. Massachusetts has two existing funding streams that could power these initiatives with just a bit of improvement.

The Small Business Technical Assistance Grant provided by the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation needs a new infusion of funds, and the Workforce Training Fund Programs administered by Commonwealth Corporation needs some additional flexibility. With these resources, communities can design programs tailored to help immigrant entrepreneurs build the skills they will need to grow their businesses.

Promoting immigrant entrepreneurship is difficult work, with no groundbreaking at the beginning or ribbon-cutting at the end. But initiatives such as these are how Gateway Cities can take the long view and work to continuously reinvent themselves so that they can drive regional economies across our Commonwealth well into the new century.

Ben Forman is director of the Gateway Cities Innovation Institute at MassINC. Marcia Hohn is director of the Public Education Institute at The Immigrant Learning Center Inc. A newly released MassINC report looks at the challenges facing immigrant entrepreneurs and how Gateway Cities can help them thrive to the benefit of their communities.