By Derek Dobies

A look at some of the vacant storefronts downtown highlights that our city still faces some very serious problems.

While the city has invested in downtown infrastructure and place-making efforts, it also must recognize the role entrepreneurs can play in reviving our economy, breathing new life into downtown, and filling vacant storefronts with the small businesses of tomorrow.

Small businesses grow our local economy, increase our tax base and boost our competitiveness. Cutting red tape and undue obstacles to small-business creation can encourage entrepreneurs to consider Jackson as a place to do business.

In June, the White House and the U.S. Small Business Administration hosted a “Startup In A Day” competition to award $1.5 million in funds to cities to support the development, implementation, and improvement of online tools that streamline the business startup process for entrepreneurs, in one day or less.

While cities like Ann Arbor, Detroit and Flint applied, Jackson was one of 25 communities, and the only community in Michigan, whose proposals were selected for the $50,000 grant. We joined the ranks of major cities like Austin, Atlanta, St. Louis and Washington DC.

Jackson’s proposal, “Business Connect,” creates a centralized, online platform to streamline business startups. The tool will accelerate entrepreneurs’ access to and understanding of fees, permits, and licenses related to starting a business in Jackson in three main ways:

  • Simple diagrams and text will explain the costs, processes and timelines for required permits, licenses, & fees from the perspective of a new business.
  • Online application forms will simplify searching, completing, and submitting City permits, licenses, & fees.
  • Profile registration will facilitate the user’s continued communication through access to completed forms, tracking of applications, and staff/resource referrals.

Sen. Gary Peters, a member of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, has said that programs like Jackson’s “Business Connect” will help make Michigan the Startup Capital of the Midwest.

Our effort helps move us toward that vision by getting entrepreneurs up and running. With this momentum, we should continue explore other ways to partner with the business community to promote entrepreneurship and restore vibrancy to our local economy:

  • First, Jackson should create a local hatching effort to incentivize entrepreneurial spark into our business community. Success might look like Greater Lansing’s “The Hatching” – a competition that allows local entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of judges, hoping to win the prize of $1,000 to help kick-start their business plans.
  • Second, Jackson should work to develop and support co-working spaces that can serve as business incubators. Success might look like Lansing’s Center for New Enterprise Opportunity, or The Runway fashion incubator, where creative talent is pooled together and given the tools and training needed for long-term success.
  • Lastly, the city should retool its economic development operations towards strategies that not only attract large developments, but support the growth of smaller startups. Success will involve asset mapping, long-term planning, and collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce and other regional economic development agencies.

The city is working to redefine the way it works with the business community. Projects like “Business Connect” will not only develop effective tools for entrepreneurs, but will help facilitate the collaboration and communication necessary to explore more of these opportunities. With an entrepreneurial spirit, the sky truly is the limit.

– Derek Dobies is the Vice Mayor and City Councilman from Ward 6. He spearheaded the Startup In A Day competition application in collaboration with the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.