This morning I sat through a rather extended discussion at the Economic Development Authority (EDA) meeting. The specific subject was the Clem Shearer Micro Grant but the resulting exchange of opinions explored a much larger topic, one that is close to the heart, in my opinion, of how the public sector might support private sector efforts to produce economic development.
The Clem Shearer Grant program (named for a beloved Carleton Professor and Member of the EDA) awards grants of, now, up to $10,000 for growing, or even start-up, Northfield businesses. This morning’s discussion, as I understood it, was initiated by a recommendation by the Shearer Grant Committee to expand the accepted uses of the funds to include furniture, fixtures, and working capital, and to require a match of the grant funds. From these small details, the big issues flowed.
Some of the EDA members appeared to be concerned that furniture, fixtures and working capital were, in my words, softer or less substantial uses of the funds than, let’s say, equipment or build-out. There was also a feeling among some of the members that responsible stewardship of city resources would perhaps call for an equal commitment of funds by the grant recipient.
Other EDA members took a different view. They suggested that if the purpose of the grant is to stimulate economic growth, increase the tax base, and generate new jobs, the uses of the funds should have the flexibility to meet a wide variety of business needs. Several members also argued that sweat equity and previous investments could be considered as a match.
This balance between supporting entrepreneurial risk and protecting public resources is, in my experience, a crucial component in shaping, at least the perception of, business-friendliness. In some ways, at least in my mind, it’s closely related to the balance between flexible interpretations of ordinances and a rigid enforcement of rules. Ultimately, it will be up to the EDA (in my sincere belief made up of some of the sharpest minds in Northfield) to make this decision. However, I’m interested in hearing the opinion of the LG community on this topic.