How local and regional governments are creating jobs
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With the loss of many well-paid manufacturing jobs, including the shuttering of three automotive plants in the past decade, the St. Louis area “had a little bit deeper hole to climb out of than some regions,” says Denny Coleman, president and CEO of the St. Louis County Economic Council. “Given the fact that we’ve had the same recessionary pressures everyone else has, we’ve done reasonably well at creating jobs, and our economy has diversified.”
One strategy that’s working for St. Louis County is developing a renewed focus on entrepreneurship, which is leading to the creation of new jobs and the promise of additional jobs in the future. While encouraging entrepreneurship is certainly nothing new, the council has recently increased its support of entrepreneurs and worked to build an environment that will welcome and support those interested in launching and growing businesses. “In most communities, the vast majority of job growth has always occurred by expanding your existing businesses and building entrepreneurs,” Coleman says.
To capitalize on this age-old method of job creation, St. Louis County recently opened its fifth business incubator. The Helix Center, which opened in June, will host early stage biotech companies in its 31,000 square feet of space. In addition to reaching out to biotech companies, St. Louis leaders have championed information technology companies and now offer many new services for companies in that space.
For instance, local leaders formed the IT Entrepreneur Network (ITEN) in 2008. This nonprofit organization offers unique programs, events, and access to resources that accelerate tech venture success. The organization’s goal is to “form a venture roadmap from concept through design, prototype, launch, revenue, funding and rapid scaling,” according to its website.
For instance, the organization offers deep mentoring relationships for technology entrepreneurs. Beyond traditional mentoring, the organization’s mentors also offer acceleration programs such as a “mock angel training” program to help prepare entrepreneurs for investor presentations, and a concept development program, which helps would-be entrepreneurs to clearly define the mission and opportunities of a new venture. Currently, ITEN serves more than 220 startup ventures and involves more than 120 volunteer mentors.
Along with targeting certain types of startups, the Economic Council has collaborated with a variety of local groups that share its goal of building entrepreneurs. It has worked with governmental, public, private and nonprofit organizations and used federal seed money to bring together all entrepreneurial support organizations across the region. That includes organizations providing facilities, mentoring, educational services, and financing for entrepreneurs.
Together, the groups have formed the Regional Entrepreneurship Initiative, which includes a web portal where budding entrepreneurs can access all available services across the region. “We’ve had some very successful startup companies in the past that were significant but mostly sporadic,” Coleman says. “We don’t want just one-off successes; now we want to create an environment where large numbers of entrepreneurs can be successful because they have everything they need here,” Coleman says. In 2011, the St. Louis region was home to 69,042 small businesses and the region ranked sixth nationally for entrepreneurial activity, according to SLCEC research.
In addition to fostering entrepreneurship across the region, St. Louis County is taking another new focus that is less traditional for economic development departments. The Economic Council is focusing on immigration, and in particular, creating an environment that is welcoming to immigrants, to attract new jobs and build businesses. Nationally, immigrants make up about 13 percent of the population but were responsible for 28 percent of all businesses started in 2011, according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, published by the Kauffman Foundation of Entrepreneurship.
Recent research shows that only 4.5 percent of St. Louis area residents were foreign born, a statistic that concerns local economic developers. “Immigrants create companies at a faster rate than native-born Americans,” Coleman says. “Here in St. Louis, our immigrants are frequently very highly educated and have a lot to offer. We want to create a more welcoming environment for immigrants from various countries.”
To that end, the Economic Council, the St. Louis Development Corp., the World Trade Center St. Louis and the International Institute of St. Louis are studying the economic impact of foreign-born residents in the region to determine what the area can do to improve its standing. The $25,000 study, funded by a William T. Kemper Foundation grant, was not available at press time, but St. Louis leaders will be developing recommendations based on the report to help attract more immigrants and create an environment that will make it attractive for immigrants to stay and become part of the community.