Wayne Tomorrow! and the wide ranging collaboration it represents embody the concept that everyone – everyone – plays a role in economic development. We call it the Entrepreneurial Ecosystem, and while the Stourbridge Project constitutes the heart, there are many arteries and veins that feed it.
Susan Shaffer, director of The Stourbridge Project (TSP) Co-working Space and Business Incubator, talked about how that works during a presentation for the Community Impact Network meeting in July. She explained that for a Rural Business Incubator, Wayne County has a very different model from other counties where that means a few computer work stations dedicated to those starting a business.
“There really is no other place that has a dedicated facility of 10,000 square feet offering a complete comprehensive array of business services linked to an economic development engine or initiative or a community development initiative, which is what Wayne Tomorrow! is,” Shaffer stated.
TSP has been designed to provide the enabling infrastructure to generate Professional & Technical Services jobs and promote entrepreneurial activity in the county. Its creation required efforts, action and funding on the part of community, county, regional, state, federal and philanthropic agencies and organizations. Those efforts constituted a nearly $2 million investment.
Shaffer offered some statistics that illustrate that the investment is paying off, especially in the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic. In 2020, TSP recorded 218 visits to the co-working space, three companies were enrolled in the Keystone Innovation Zone, and a total of 34 people used the prototyping lab. During 2020-21, TSP offered 173 trainings and assisted 37 businesses.
One year later, those numbers rose significantly to 728 visits to the co-working space -- up 230 percent, with twice as many enrollees in the KIZ and more than twice as many individuals using the prototyping lab. More than 80 businesses received assistance, and there were more than 700 training attendees.
But more important even than the space is the culture of collaboration that helps to nurture the ecosystem. To illustrate the point, Shaffer shared the Digital Economy Model developed and enhanced by the Center on Rural Innovation. “When you look at the Foundational Elements, it’s Wayne Tomorrow!”
The model shows that a thriving digital economy needs foundational elements like housing, public health & safety, public-sector leadership and support, private and non-profit engagement, quality schools and attractive downtowns. It also require some necessary infrastructure like broadband, local leadership and entrepreneurial spaces.
To directly drive economic development requires a few key ingredients like digital workforce development, access to capital and inclusive tech culture building and more. Elements of the Wayne Tomorrow! collaboration are tackling all of these needs with the goal of creating wealth through business startups that can provide quality digital employment.
Consultant Erik Pages of EntreWorks, in the most recent Wayne Tomorrow! Podcast, calls it Economic Gardening, where a community grows its own economic development through the nurturing and support of small existing and new businesses.
He says the days of the so-called “buffalo hunt” of trying to lure huge employers like Google or Amazon to an area that does not have the local resources to support them are over. “It’s probably been over for 50 years in rural communities, but yet we were sold a bill of goods on this front,” Pages explained.
He argues that over 10 to 15 years, the strategy of building your economy one job at a time will outperform the “swing for the fences” buffalo hunt every time. This strategy also provides the community with the opportunity to strengthen their local culture and quality of life even as it grows.
In this scenario, Wayne Tomorrow! acts as the gardener tending to the various elements of the ecosystem – housing, workforce development, strong local food system, vibrant downtowns etc. Shaffer said there is a lot of innovation and ideas going on in Wayne County that have led to the success of The Stourbridge Project. “It’s all integrated.”
Through the Wayne Tomorrow! collaborations a business owner or entrepreneur can get connected to this powerful network through any one of its elements, including the obvious – the county, the libraries, the chamber, the Wayne Economic Development Corporation, and the Wayne-Pike Workforce Alliance. But thanks to the information sharing at the monthly Community Impact Network meetings, entrepreneurs can be guided to important services through many others organizations in nearly every sector of the community.
Yet Pages said there is even more to Economic Development than these concerted efforts. He said it is also important to inform the community and get everyone involved. “If you go to a town and you ask someone, ‘What is there to do around here?’ and they say, ‘Oh this place sucks. There’s nothing to do.’ That’s the kiss of death,” he said.
To learn more about what Wayne Tomorrow! is doing to encourage economic development, visit www.WayneTomorrow.com or listen to the Wayne Tomorrow! Podcast.