The Economics of Placemaking

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One of four location of the award-winning Clothesline Cleaners, 1006 S. St. Mary's. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

In recent years, there have been a lot of conversations about “placemaking” in San Antonio.  Countless charrettes, public forums, government initiatives and private conversations have been held to discuss how to create a livelier urban core.

However, I believe there is often a disconnect between the things that really make a place special and the public efforts that make it so.

When I talk to people about their ideal living situation, many have a vision of a neighborhood with character, where you can walk to a neighborhood beer garden on a Friday night or a little bakery on a Sunday morning, and have serendipitous meetings with friends and neighbors.

El Sol Bakery and Bistro in Southtown, San Antonio

El Sol Bakery and Bistro in Southtown, San Antonio. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

And yet, the vast majority of effort put into improving the urban core ignores these small businesses, or simply hopes that they will spontaneously appear once the sidewalks are fixed or bike racks are installed.

But each one of these businesses is born from an entrepreneur who has a dream and then acts on it.  These entrepreneurs put themselves on the line every day.  Not only do small businesses employ the majority of people in San Antonio [PDF], but the business owners are also often working 60 to 80 hours a week – running their business while creating much of the vitality that makes our city special.

Tourism is one of San Antonio’s largest industries, yet what would the River Walk or El Mercado be without the small businesses that are there?

In my work at Accion Texas, every day I see potential entrepreneurs with ideas that would add to the vitality that makes San Antonio a better place to live.

Southtown is the kind of place that city leaders and urban planners throughout the country would love to replicate, but imagine a Southtown without Rosario’s or The Monterey, or without Accion clients like El Sol Bakery & Bistro, Azuca, The Friendly Spot, Frosted Delights by Joyce, Clothesline Cleaners, or any of the other small businesses that help make Southtown a great place to be.

One of four locations of the award-winning Clothesline Cleaners, 1006 S. St. Mary’s. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

And yet, as essential as small businesses are to creating the vibrant communities that many of us say that we want, there is still remarkably little attention placed on what it takes to actually make that happen.

Due to regulatory constraints, banks typically can’t lend to businesses that are less than two years old. So for most budding entrepreneurs, it can be nearly impossible to access capital to open a new business.  By making loans to new small businesses and helping existing businesses to grow, Accion is driving a significant engine of economic development. Just as important, we are financing the small businesses that are creating the fabric of our neighborhoods.

As a non-profit, about half of Accion’s operational costs are covered by lending activities, and the other half is made up by contributions from the community.  Even former loan recipients, grateful for the financing that helped them start their business, have contributed to “pay it forward” so that Accion can continue to help other small businesses.

Southtown is a great example of an area where several Accion-funded businesses together help to create a unique sense of place. But we’ve also made thousands of loans throughout San Antonio, from Ed’s Smok-N-Q barbecue on the East Side, to Bernard’s Creole Kitchen on the Southwest Side, to Image Avenue Clothiers on the North Side, and many more throughout the city.  Cumulatively, businesses like these have created more jobs than many of the big name employers that tend to get more attention.

The Jewelry Box on a busy First Friday night. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The Jewelry Box on a busy First Friday night. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Some clients have visible retail operations, but there are lots of Accion-funded businesses that many people never see, from high-tech firms like Sweb Development, which builds websites and iPhone Apps, to bottled water manufacturer Artesia Springs.

To be successful economically, San Antonio needs a mix of employers of all sizes.  But to create neighborhoods with the kind of vibrant atmosphere that can attract the creative class that will help build San Antonio’s future, there is no substitute for what small businesses can add.

When you support the small businesses in your neighborhood, you help build the type of community that we all hope to have.  As San Antonians, it is up to all of us to make sure that we continue to support these small businesses that make San Antonio what it is today, and encourage those potential entrepreneurs with a dream of what could be, to dust off that business plan and make it a reality for the San Antonio of tomorrow.

Patrick Shearer is San Antonio Market President with Accion Texas, which holds the nation’s largest microloan portfolio. Accion Texas is headquartered in San Antonio.

About Accion Texas

  • Non-profit offers loans and training to small businesses
  • Loans range from $500 to $5 Million
  • Average Loan Size is around $15,000
  • Founded in 1994
  • Headquarters in San Antonio, with operations in seven other states.
  • Part of the Accion International, which offers microloans around the world.
  • Since its inception, Accion Texas has lent nearly $130 Million to 13,000 small businesses
  • To apply for a small business loan, visit www.acciontexas.org or stop by our Lending and Learning Center located at 225 W. Poplar.

    To view upcoming small business training classes available from Accion Texas, visit:http://www.accionbizcenter.org//EventsCalendarMonth.asp?

7 thoughts on “The Economics of Placemaking

  1. What a great article. As a small business owner I concur that capital is incredibly difficult to obtain. I also agree that the politicians, Chamber and other organizations focus on big industry and totally ignore the folks who give San Antonio its unique, special character.

    I recently moved from the far Northside to Southside and the lack of big box stores plus the plethora of small family owned businesses is amazing. I hope that the City and it’s citizens realize that these little businesses make big contributions in our quality of life. I can handle a cracked sidewalk now that I can walk to LaTuna and get dinner. I never considered walking anywhere on the Northside!

    Thanks to Accion Texas as well. While I have not used them for financing, I have certainly felt the cold shoulder from banks who now make a living with fees, instead of lending to folks like me. It is a different business environment now and thank goodness a San Antonio company is making a difference.

  2. Patrick

    This is one of the best-written and best-argued articles we’ve published on the Rivard Report from a community contributor. We appreciate your work and hope to hear from you again. –RR

  3. Fantastic article. Cities are defined by their small businesses. Big names are important as well and bring in high paying jobs to the area, but small business can really “create” a neighborhood not only by providing goods and services but by serving as neighborhood gathering spots as well. I’m glad organizations like Accion exist to foster small business in our community.

  4. Well said Patrick. There are multiple challenges for small businesses to open up and it is nice to know of at least one more innovative capital sources. Please send money!

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