Over the past month and a half, my feelings towards the work I’ve been doing at the Office of Economic and Workforce Development have alternated between enthusiasm and resignation.
I am part of a team at the Office that has been busy putting together a report of case studies of different small business programs around the country. During the first few weeks of the project, we spent much of the day doing research. I was so inspired! Cities across the country, from Charlotte to Seattle to Chicago, have recognized the necessity of building up a supportive small business ecosystem. I also learned about policies such as business loan programs, inclusive contracting policies, and free business consulting for small business owners. We even discussed larger systemic changes, such as policies to make real estate more affordable for business owners, as long shots, yet policies that are still worth thinking about. The more we researched, the more we were excited about the future of small business in Durham: there are so many programs out there that the City could implement!
When I’m excited about something, I have a tendency to become consumed by my idealism. All of the policies and programs I researched seem amazing on paper. But I hadn’t given much thought towards the actual implementation of these policies. Over the past week, we scheduled meetings and phone calls to talk directly to experts who have been doing this work for years. More often than not, we left those meetings feeling disappointed and unmotivated. The policies we researched sounded so great on paper, but more often than not, there were obstacles that were stopping the City from actually implementing these policies.
For example, the City used to give out several grants for small businesses to use to purchase signs for their storefronts and make internal and external improvements to their buildings. Reactivating these grant programs seemed easy enough to us—these grants were small, $5,000 or less, and the Department had enough money in their budget. However, after talking to Reggie, who was responsible for administering the grants, we learned that even granting such a small amount of funding was labor-intensive administratively. Any grant, no matter how small, had to be presented to the City Council and await approval. In addition, government grants can become a political issue too—these grants were only available for businesses located in certain districts, such as downtown. Our hopes of reimplementing these grants by the end of our time here in Durham were quickly dashed after our meeting with Reggie.
Leaving the meeting, we felt disappointed. However, after returning to the report we had been working on, we realized that there were other, more realistic policies that the City could implement. Small Business Week, a week that encourages Durham residents to shop at local businesses, is one idea that my supervisor, Brian, really likes. In addition, Matty and I are helping contribute content to a resource website for small businesses that will make it easier to start a business in Durham. Even though we haven’t been able to accomplish all of what we had hoped, I remind myself that change is a gradual process, and during our last week of work at the OEWD, we leave knowing that we have made a difference, even if it may be small.