Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Is micro manufacturing the future of main street?

Nur is an Associate for Larisa Ortiz Associates

Empty storefronts on the main commercial
street in Nunda, NY (Photo: LOA)
In the last year, we’ve worked in a wide range of communities – from the bustling and dense metropolitan streets of Cambridge, MA to the quiet and seasonal towns of Hudson and Livonia in upstate New York. No matter where we’ve gone, the growing trend of online shopping continues to bring bleak prospects on the future of main street storefronts. Many sit vacant in the communities we’ve worked with and although pop-up retail concepts (as we’ve written about here) can be a quick, short-term solution to filling these ground floor spaces, we continue to wonder what else might feasibly fill these gaps?

Well, the answer that is beginning to surface in a few towns across the country, is Micro Manufacturing. For years, Euclidean zoning has prohibited all manufacturing uses in residential areas across many cities and downtowns to keep out “nuisance” such as noise and noxious by-products. Naturally, mentioning the word ‘manufacturing’ in a downtown discussion will raise eyebrows amongst the misinformed. Micro Manufacturing however, as we will discover, is a unique form of manufacturing that can bring more jobs, uses and vibrancy to underutilized spaces downtown than it might ‘noxious by-products’ and ‘noise’. Here’s why.

Dough on Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn, NY produces dougnuts
for sale direct to consumers and wholesale to cafes
and Whole Foods across the City. Photo: NYHabitat.
Micro manufacturing, or small-scale manufacturing, is characterized by artisan goods that are produced in small quantities using small hand tools or light machinery. These goods can be made direct for consumers or for other businesses (for example, baked goods that can be sold wholesale to delis, caf├ęs or restaurants). Recently, in the US, this subset of manufacturers has grown exponentially due to the growth in consumer demand for ‘local’, ‘homemade’, ‘artisan’ goods. In addition, technology has ensured that access to online marketplaces has lowered barriers to entry for such small scale producers. 

Since many of these micro manufacturers don’t require large floor plates to carry out production, they are extremely viable tenants for the many small- to mid-sized vacant storefronts that plague our main streets, provided zoning is made flexible enough to support these uses without having to undergo substantive variance proceedings. In our work in Cambridge, MA, for example, a small microbrewery that was both producing craft beers on-site for wholesale purpose and selling beer on tap direct to consumer in a tasting room was required to apply for a variance given that it did not fit the traditional ‘retail use’ category as outlined in the city’s table of uses.

Moniker Warehouse in East Village, San Diego hosts not only makers
but also events open to public and consumers. Photo: Moniker Group.
Consumer-facing producers that create high-value items with small equipment, like jewelry, scarves, and small furnishing goods, typically require small workshops that measure 400-800 SF each. Housing eight to ten of these artisanal producers in a single storefront will not only remove the break in retail continuity on Main Street but also potentially increase foot traffic through the creation of a new, experiential destination for those visiting downtown. I’ve seen beautifully embroidered purses being made in real-time at markets in South East Asia and have always been enthralled by the process. Once or twice, I’ve even stopped to chat with these women making the goods and trust me, these have become some of the most memorable consumer experiences for me. Imagine creating a storefront/workshop full of such opportunities in your downtown! 

Photo: Detroit Kitchen Connect.
Micro manufacturers involved in food processing and food production are also another group of potential tenants for ground floor vacancies. Although these producers require more than just a small space (they need the right kitchen facilities, storage/cooling facilities etc.), they are incredibly crucial to the growth of food and dining businesses in a city. Many producers that start in shared kitchens measuring a meager 5,000 SF have gone on to establish full-service restaurants, expanded to roving food trucks, or even created special sauces for restaurants across cities. Providing a small, starting platform for these producers in a form of a shared kitchen on the ground floor of your downtown can mean much more for your dining scene in years to come. 

While it’s great that micro manufacturing might be the answer to the future of Main Street, its benefits indeed go far beyond filling vacant ground floor retail spaces. Micro manufacturing can increase supply of locally-made goods and services (thereby increasing a city’s ‘Shop Local’ brand) and also increase sales tax revenues. Most importantly, micro manufacturing is also a great source of inclusive and well-paid employment for downtown residents. There are minimal risks involved in entering this sector which means that underserved, low-income, minority individuals can more easily participate in the economy. Research from the Brookings Institution even showed that advanced industries (which includes small-scale manufacturing) pay more than retail at every education level.

So how can our downtowns and cities show even greater support for micro manufacturers beyond providing space on Main Street?

Create a one-stop shop for micro-manufacturing assistance and resources

Current small business services provided by governments often aren’t tailored to the unique needs of micro manufacturers.  As a result, it is important to create a physical or virtual one-stop shop for all resources specific to these businesses, including legal assistance, loan/ grant funding support, workshop space leasing guidance, mentoring and networking services, and advertising support.

Launch a collective marketing brand for micro-manufacturing

This may be local or even regional marketing campaigns that highlight micro-manufacturers and their unique goods and services. An online directory of all participating manufacturers and products will raise awareness of consumers and businesses to available local producers. The Made in Baltimore Campaign was funded by a grant by the US Economic Development Administration and has led to the creation of a seal that is given to all members to use on products, packaging and promotional materials, and also led to the creation of events celebrating the culture of manufacturing in Baltimore, MD.

Establish a governing body overseeing all of the above functions
In Knoxville, TN (also branded “The Maker City”), a Mayor’s Maker Council has been established to develop a shared vision for the region’s diverse maker community and raise awareness of local micro manufacturers and their goods and services. Fifteen members currently sit on the Council, all appointed by the Mayor.

In order to ensure the vibrancy and continuity of our Main Streets can be saved by micro manufacturing, we need to ensure that administrative, financial, and zoning/land use tools are put in place to support these micro manufacturers first. We can’t wait to see how our future main streets evolve and adapt to the changing needs of micro manufacturers!

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