V. Community-based Economic Development

These recommendations flow out of a basic critique of what has been the mainstream “economic development” model for city policymakers, which looks too much to the outside, rather than to supporting the infrastructure of San Francisco’s own strengths. The city’s model has been to put scarce government resources, tax breaks and other incentives, to “attract” what they have identified as the so-called “experience” industry (tourism and condo-buyers attracted to the SF “experience”), and the “knowledge” industry ( dot-coms, biotech, clean tech, etc.), and to attract the attendant future workforce required for these activities. Our focus here is not to stop or prohibit these kinds of economic activity: rather, it is to say that these are not necessarily the economic development priorities needing city support and intervention.

The reason the experience and knowledge industries come to San Francisco is because it has a rich infrastructure of cultural production and of small backstreets businesses that are the actual productive backbone that support other virtual economies. The small, neighborhood-based creative and cultural organizations, many of them in the southeast sectors of San Francisco, are at the root of what gives the city its global appeal. Small backstreets light-industrial businesses are not only indispensable for the finance, IT, biotech and other industries, they are also the businesses that are still employing San Francisco’s blue-collar workforce, providing critical jobs for working-class, immigrant, and people of color communities in San Francisco’s south-east districts. Nonetheless, these are often seen as marginal activities, vulnerable to economic whims of investors, banks, and rising real estate costs. These organizations and businesses are small, extremely varied, and many rooted in very specific cultures, neighborhoods, and local histories. While we can identify a few small “clusters” of businesses, they mostly lie dispersed throughout the city’s southeast neighborhoods and a few other commercial corridors. Their strength often lies in the networks they depend on, the connections between businesses and arts groups, and their shared knowledge.

The economic development agency must develop city programs and support new and existing neighborhood small business networks to meet the needs of key communities and constituencies. We need to integrate traditional economic development strategies with sustainable community development and community cultural development. We have a range of economic goals. Therefore, the starting point for our discussions on economic development for San Francisco are based on economic development models that:

  1. Have maximum local multipliers,
  2. Support San Francisco’s existing workforce, and have the potential to provide living wage jobs at all educational levels
  3. Support and strengthen the existing networks of locally-owned small light-industrial and hybrid businesses and creative organizations, neighborhood-serving businesses, as well as emerging “green jobs” sectors,
  4. Have a strong grounding in cultural equity, and
  5. Connect workforce development and education to these businesses and networks, and
  6. That support alternative community- and worker-ownership models, including those that might employ recent immigrants.

We’ve outlined these approaches into four issue areas:

Local Small Businesses. In addition to neighborhood-serving retail, the small, locally-owned “backstreets businesses,” small to medium light industrial businesses, are the backbone of San Francisco’s economy, and the real infrastructure for the “knowledge” and “experience” sectors, providing sustainable (ie, not bound to boom-bust cycles) city revenue and great numbers of working-class employment and entrepreneur opportunities. Supporting backstreet businesses and their networks should be the priority of the city’s economic development programs.

Green Economy and Green Jobs. The twin economic and emerging ecological crises demand a comprehensive approach to developing a green economy. This is not just “clean tech,” but includes sectors that employ the city’s existing workforce, such as the recycling sector, urban agriculture, and emerging green manufacturing sectors that are location specific and can’t be easily off-shored.

Cultural Economic Development. The creative economy, particularly cultural activity based in San Francisco’s ethnic and working-class communities, is one of San Francisco’s unique competitive advantages, and should be strengthened and supported as a sustainable economic engine for the city, not linked to external boom/bust cycles of global capital.

Solidarity Economy. Emerging solidarity economy enterprises, including worker-owned cooperatives, should be one of the priorities for a City seeking a sustainable economic development model.

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