“Because of systemic racism, because of our economic policies, we have created a nation where so
many of our smaller cities and so many of our urban neighborhoods, particularly where Blacks and
Latinos are the majority of the population, have been left behind,” says Preuss, the founder and chief
executive officer of consulting firm Recast City in Washington, D.C.
She doesn’t want city leaders to spend all of their time and money convincing big companies to
relocate. Instead, she argues, they should identify and cultivate small-scale manufacturers who are
already living in (or near) town. If they do well, they will likely increase hiring and spend more
May 14, 2021
America’s Downtown Districts Need Makers
Supporting local manufacturers can produce many benefits, including creating jobs, building skills,
and bringing in more tax revenue.
By Nick Leiber, email@example.com
Ilana Preuss is on a mission to save America's struggling towns and cities. The community
development coach works with locals across the country who are trying to overcome decades of
underinvestment, poor planning, and other obstacles. She advocates equitable, inclusive economic
development. “Because of systemic racism, because of our economic policies, we have created a
nation where so many of our smaller cities and so many of our urban neighborhoods, particularly
where Blacks and Latinos are the majority of the population, have been left behind,” says Preuss, the
founder and chief executive officer of consulting firm Recast City in Washington, D.C.
Now, because of the pandemic’s devastating effect on countless small businesses (see “Small
Businesses’ Uneven Recovery”) and the downtown districts they used to inhabit, mayors, city
planners, economic development directors, real estate developers, and the like are becoming
increasingly receptive to Preuss’s big idea about how to revive areas that are languishing. She doesn’t
want city leaders to spend all of their time and money convincing big companies to relocate. Instead,
she argues, they should identify and cultivate small-scale manufacturers who are already living in (or
near) town. If they do well, they will likely increase hiring and spend more locally.
The definition of small-scale manufacturers should be expansive, as she sees it. They can be artisans
working out of their homes or advanced manufacturers making anything that can be replicated and
packaged, from beer or biotech equipment to cosmetics or clothing. She encourages cities to identify
manufacturers that are already are generating sales by selling online directly to consumers or serving
as suppliers or wholesalers. She emphasizes that they generally pay better than other sectors and
teach workers valuable skills.
“On a national average, the salary is 50% to 100% more than retail and service jobs, Preuss says. “If
we’re really looking at getting people out of poverty, small-scale manufacturing has to be part of the
Of the roughly 31 million businesses in the U.S., about 25 million are one-person operations,
according to the Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy. The vast majority are likely
operating out of their homes. Preuss recognizes the urgency of their financial situation. She pushes
places to start projects that can become reality in less than a year, such as opening commercial
kitchens and makerspaces. “People are in such need; it's not about some big long-term plan, it's
about what can we do now that makes a difference,” says Preuss.
Preuss has consulted for a few dozen towns and cities since launching Recast City in 2014. Her
experience has informed her how-to book, “Recast Your City: How to Save Your Downtown with
Small-Scale Manufacturing,” scheduled to be published in June. In one project she facilitated in
Columbia, Missouri, the initial focus was on local entrepreneurs looking to grow their home-based
food product businesses. The result is a nonprofit commercial shared kitchen, the first in the city, in
The Loop corridor that opened at the end of 2020.
A makerspace for community college students as well as locals is scheduled to open by summer.
Carrie Gartner, executive director of The Loop Community Improvement District, says the mile
long stretch is “bordered by a lot of high unemployment, low-income areas.” She sees the effort as a
way to help those hardest hit by the pandemic, particularly those, she says, “locked out of the
system–who don’t have family wealth, investors, or a relationship with a bank….There’s a huge
hidden economy here in Columbia of people making, growing, building, and fixing things,” says
Similar redevelopment projects are under way in Bellflower, Calif., Minneapolis (see “His
Minneapolis Distillery Was Set on Fire. Helping Locals Start Businesses Is His New Calling”), and
South Bend, Indiana, which recently launched Scaling Up! South Bend to train and provide
subsidized space within a massive manufacturing facility to local artisans, craftspeople, and others.
“Don’t underestimate home-based entrepreneurs,” says Terrand Smith, the founder and CEO of
Chicago-based consulting firm 37 Oaks. She has been providing training to South Bend program
participants since early 2021. “They’ll be the ones occupying empty storefronts in the future if we
Since launching 37 Oaks in 2016, Smith’s focus has been working with women and minority owners
in minority communities disproportionately harmed by the pandemic. These business owners will be
the biggest drivers of local economies going forward, she says. They “need help scaling so they can
have a bigger economic impact, which means more hiring, more generational wealth, and more tax
Betting on small manufacturers is anything but a risk — it’s “the missing piece that many never
really thought about that we need to add into the mix,” Preuss says.