Vibrant Spaces was a competition this summer open to anyone willing to propose a new business to fill one of six empty storefronts in downtown Norfolk. It was co-sponsored by the Downtown Norfolk Council and Grow, a local creative agency founded by Drew Ungvarsky. The competition enticed participants with an offer of cash grants totaling $20,000 for each business and half-off market rental rates for two years as well as.
As a participant in Vibrant Spaces, I am definitely biased. Although my proposal was not selected, I think the competition represents a clear path for our region towards diversification – one that supports entrepreneurial activities rather than developer handouts or environmentally risky activities.
The response the organizers of Vibrant Spaces received was nothing short of amazing. In all, they received 86 proposals for those six vacant storefronts spread across downtown. Think about it; that’s 86 different people (or groups) ready to start businesses in downtown Norfolk – just because someone offered resources to help make it happen. And truly, this response is just tip of the iceberg made up of thriving start-up entrepreneurial communities across the region such as Hatch in Norfolk, 1 Million Cups in Virginia Beach (Kevin Curry, below) and the Technology, Business & Innovation Center of Greater Williamsburg.
But despite all the great work going on in places like these and others, making resources available to people is still the key to driving innovation and growth. Bill Brunelle, the co-founder of Independent We Stand, a Virginia Beach group that promotes “buy-local” campaigns across the country, said in a recent interview on Hampton Business Weekly that the top frustration he sees is lack of funds to start and grow new businesses. I’d say the response to Vibrant Spaces from entrepreneurs in our region would reinforce that viewpoint.
Unfortunately, comments made at the pro-drilling symposium by Bryan Stephens, President of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, capture the attitude of so many of our regions leaders. In his speech, he focused on drillings’ ability to be the region’s singular “game-changer” versus things like cybersecurity, biomedical products, and computer modeling and simulation. But it’s this “game-changer” mentality – one always dependent on the next big thing, the next big project, the next big development – that has left us searching for more as a region.
And how can anyone be so sure what the next big game changer will be? If we’re making bets, I’d prefer to put my faith in the hands of a lot of talented and hungry entrepreneurs and their customers to figure that out.
When compared to the big-ticket items our leaders like to buy, programs like Vibrant Spaces seem inexpensive. With awards of $120,000 in cash grants to new businesses and somewhere around $1,600 a month in rent incentives per storefront, the costs of Vibrant Spaces are dwarfed by the city’s $100 million investment in the new convention center.
For that much money, Norfolk could afford to invest in 285 competitions like Vibrant Spaces, reaping the rewards that come from creating over 1700 new businesses. It’s a lofty goal but one that the research indicates is worthwhile. Because it is startup companies of all types that are the primary drivers of new job growth in our country and thus most likely to create a positive ripple effect on their community.
So if we’re looking for a true “game-changer,” I’d argue for abandoning the “build it and they will come” mentality that’s driven our leaders in the past. Instead let’s push them to implement policies more like “support them and they will build it” – through more competitions and programs like Vibrant Spaces.
For example, how about one focused on utilizing vacant office space around town? Or one centered on veterans, or talent at local universities? How about targeting struggling business districts in other neighborhoods of the region, filling in existing space instead of building more capacity? Doesn’t it make sense to use what we already have first? Doesn’t it make sense to focus on our own first?
So when Rep. Rigell speaks about diversifying our economy while asking incredulously about viable alternatives to off-shore drilling, I know he’s just missing the real potential that’s right here on shore. Let’s push him and others to figure it out.
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