More will be Ready for Rail, thanks to Business Resources Collaborative

Many small businesses and property owners who may have once felt threatened by construction of the Central Corridor Light Rail Line are beginning to look at the project differently, thanks to a collaborative effort designed to help them prepare for and survive the construction — and thrive after LRT begins passenger service in 2014.

This week, the Business Resources Collaborative (BRC) went public for the first time, announcing a bundle of initiatives designed to help owners get ready for rail and mitigate the effects of construction in the Central Corridor.

Now — through a coordinated network of outreach specialists, drop-in centers, business associations and local government offices — small businesses and property owners can find information about construction and free or low-cost services to strengthen their business. Already hundreds of businesses have received some form of assistance by BRC members, and at least 1800 will be reached by the effort. Read more about Ready for Rail.

We’re proud to see it.

The BRC formed with the support of the Funders Collaborative in 2009, as a coalition of business organizations, nonprofit community developers and local governments to address business and economic development in the Central Corridor. It is the first working group convened and supported by the Funders Collaborative to carry its work all the way through to implementation.

The BRC experience demonstrates how our model of investing in community-led innovation can work.

Learning. The members spent time learning about the business impact of light rail projects, bringing in experts who had experience with similar projects in other regions. Whenever possible, we learned together and brought the community into the sessions. The real-life examples and lessons energized people, added to the business development debate, and created some common ground. One speaker in particular attracted many Asian-owned businesses into the conversation for the first time.

Developing shared solutions. The BRC spans business organizations, nonprofit community developers, local governments and the Metropolitan Council — all of which already were pursuing their own initiatives in the corridor. These diverse and sometimes competing groups worked out a way to share solutions by first acknowledging what was already in place and effective.

Rather than reinventing the wheel in the name of collaboration, they agreed that the group would be a coordinating body that maintained a corridor-wide perspective and kept a focus on what business needed in the short-term and long-term to thrive in the Corridor. They identified existing resources and then jointly developed a solution or assigned a group to deliver what was lacking. Each member organization in effect became a conduit for its own stakeholders to all the resources of the group.

Implementation. Member groups, some with funding from the Funders Collaborative, have already helped hundreds of corridor businesses with business consulting, parking mitigation, marketing assistance and financing.

However, the BRC identified some gaps in preparation.

The Ready for Rail initiative addressed the gaps, by clarifying action steps businesses need to take. A small business loan program, funded with $1 million from the Metropolitan Council and $500,000 from the Funders Collaborative, provides an incentive to prepare — by offering a safety net in the form of a zero-interest, delayed loan to qualified businesses who took the right steps to get ready for construction.

“The BRC and its members have shown that our model and principles for investing in community-led processes can produce solutions that have wide support, use existing resources wisely, and address the issues that communities care about,” said Polly Talen, Program Director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and co-chair of the Funders Collaborative. “We hope to see comparable successes by groups working on affordable housing and access to jobs.”

“Having watched this work unfold, I don’t think any of the members would say the process was easy,” stated Jonathan Sage-Martinson, director of the Funders Collaborative. “But if we ask businesses on the Corridor four years from now, I think they will say this effort was worth it and it made a real difference.”