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Immigrants Key to Inclusive Economic Growth

This past January, the Fiscal Policy Institute, in conjunction with the America’s Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) released groundbreaking new research about the importance and prevalence of America’s immigrants in building and sustaining Main Street commercial retail businesses. While only 13 percent of America, immigrants make up fully 28 percent of the owners of “Main Street businesses,” defined as retail, accommodation and food services, and neighborhood service businesses.
More specifically, immigrant entrepreneurs own 58 percent of dry cleaners, 53 percent of grocery stores, 38 percent of restaurants, 32 percent of all clothing stores, 28 percent of department and discount stores, and 25 percent of electronics, radio, television, and computer stores.
In short, this research suggests that as city planners, government leaders, nonprofits, foundations, and others seek to develop and implement strategies to revitalize urban commercial corridors, they had best consider the role that immigrants play, can play, and will play. Anything less is to turn one’s back to a significant source of investment, risk-taking, ingenuity, hard work, and opportunity.
Immigrant-owned Main Street businesses earn $13 billion annually, provide a critical source of first jobs for many in the American workforce, and “play an important role in generating neighborhood-level economic growth by making these areas attractive places to live and work,” according to the report.
The report compares 2000 and 2013 Census data noting that immigrants accounted for 48 percent of overall growth of business ownership in the U.S. during this time and all of the growth in Main Street business in 31 of the country’s 50 largest metropolitan areas and an impressive share of the increase in the remaining 19 areas. The number of immigrant Main Street business owners increased even in the seven metro areas (of the nation’s 50 largest) that saw an overall decline in Main Street business owners (such metros include Detroit, Cleveland, Birmingham, Columbus, Milwaukee, Providence, and Pittsburgh).
Here in Detroit (where I help run Global Detroit, a regional economic development initiative that seeks to tap into the economicSteve Tobocman opportunities that immigrants provide our region) we worked hard to partner with and replicate the work of the Neighborhood Development Center, a model program in entrepreneurship training, micro-lending, and small business support for low-income immigrants and people of color. NDC’s unique model of entrepreneurial development has helped nearly 500 businesses in the Twin Cities, employing over 2,200 people at good-paying jobs. More than 60 percent of NDC-trained businesses occupy formerly vacant spaces.
In 2011, we helped launch ProsperUS Detroit with the generous support of the Kellogg Foundation and New Economy Initiative. Housed at Southwest Housing, ProsperUS is NDC’s first replication effort. ProsperUS has partnered with a dozen neighborhood organizations to train nearly 300 low-income African-American, Latino, and immigrant Detroit residents to launch businesses in five targeted Detroit neighborhoods.
What is critically important about NDC and ProsperUS is the values-based system they employ to cultivate new businesses within these communities. This past week, Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan talked about the critical importance of “inclusion” in Detroit. Both NDC and ProsperUS focus on the “hidden, untapped talent” inherent in low-income communities. They provide comprehensive support through trusted local partners that host their trainings. And they invest in their entrepreneurs and target communities for a sustained period of time.
In addition to documenting the incredible impact immigrant Main Street businesses have had on American cities and neighborhoods, the report makes some important recommendations for local and state government to foster their growth, including:
• Establish a climate of welcoming
• Provide a culturally competent business training and services
• Make financing innovative and community-based
• Link financing to training and business support
• Establish some incubators, especially commercial kitchens
• Improve licensing and inspections for everyone
• Use place-based development strategies to help Main Street businesses build neighborhoods
• Expand the reach of chambers of commerce and trade or interest groups
• Make sure programs are open to all
• Create a government office to address immigrant integration
• Be attentive to the challenges undocumented immigrants face
• Take advantage of the valuable services refugee resettlement agencies offer
• Help manage cultural and economic tensions
• Pay attention to wages for workers
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