Forward Cities is the name associated with equitable ecosystem building.
“Too often, the voices at the table for conversations around economic development are not truly representative,” Brett Brenton, Senior Director of Learning Networks at Forward Cities, explained. “Our job is to determine who needs to be at that table, which typically looks very different from who is normally there.”
New Kensington, Pennsylvania had begun to attract interest from funders as a candidate for several revitalization projects. As a once-glorious city that birthed the aluminum industry, New Kensington had fallen out of favor with the information economy that took hold in the 80s and 90s.
New Kensington, and many rust belt communities like it, make for prime locations for economic renaissance. One particular initiative on the horizon is the construction of a digital innovation lab equipped with virtual reality functionality to test concepts and prototypes.
While working with stakeholders in Pittsburgh, Forward Cities learned about New Kensington and decided to tack the community onto its work in Pittsburgh. They hired a local community member, Kim Louis, to be the project manager on the ground.
“It was really important to me,” Kim shared, “that we be able to serve the actual residents of New Kensington, in addition to the people who own the larger businesses that operate here. I really want to be able to help people break out from the barriers they’re stuck behind.”
What began as a six-month “appetizer” transformed into an 18-month standalone project. It became clear to the team at Forward Cities that many of the exciting developments in New Kensington, while great for larger companies and well-educated folks, didn’t exactly meet the needs of most community members.
“It’s really important,” Brett maintained, “to not only bring wealth into a community, but to also empower its citizens so that they can control their own economic destiny.”
After bringing needed voices to the table through a “readiness assessment,” Forward Cities determined that New Kensington needed to focus on developing its existing workforce for further revitalization efforts to reach their full potential. One key component of that mission was entrepreneurial training.
Fortunately, there was already an organization focused on entrepreneurial development in New Kensington—The Corner. The Corner runs a program called Launchbox, a small business accelerator.
Forward Cities saw an opportunity with The Corner—an opportunity to ensure that New Kensington’s best entrepreneurial hub could be as accessible as possible to as many actual residents of the community as possible.
Rhonda Schuldt, The Corner’s Innovation Coordinator, saw value in implementing a complementary program that would provide a gateway for entrepreneurs who needed training at the very basic level.
“New Kensington as a community requires small business owners to be successful, to build the thriving core of the community where people not only work, but also live and play,” Rhonda emphasized.