A Conversation with Ilana Preuss, Founder and CEO of Recast City
We sat down with Ilana Preuss, founder and CEO of Recast City, and talked about what communities can do to create amazing, economically powerful places.
Ilana Preuss is the Founder and CEO of Recast City, a firm that works with community leaders to transform places and economies through the power of small-scale manufacturing. Ilana is a widely-sought speaker and her book, Recast Your City: How to Save Your Downtown with Small-Scale Manufacturing, was published in June, 2021.
Hi, Ilana! To get started, could you tell us about yourself, and specifically how you got into your current work?
Sure! My background is originally in city planning, and I’ve always come to my work from a really place-based perspective. I’m always asking the question, “how do we make great places that people love?”
For a long time, I worked at Smart Growth America, a nonprofit that worked at the federal level to advocate for better policies around housing, transportation, downtowns, jobs, etc. But somewhere along the way, I realized that we were talking about housing and jobs without thinking critically about the quality of those jobs and the businesses that supply them. So I started looking into what kinds of businesses make the best places.
What makes a place great?
That is, in a major sense, up to the people who live there. But most people I talk to want to walk down the street, run into their neighbors, walk into shops or restaurants, stop for food, and see people they know spontaneously.
There are so many communities that used to be known for a single industry—like steel or coal or some other single product. But as communities have lost major industries over the past 50 years, their economies have bottomed out and their citizens have lost their faith in the place. I’m really passionate about rebuilding places and restoring that sense of pride to a locale.
You said that you started looking into which businesses make for the best places. What did you discover?
The most important businesses for building great places are small-scale manufacturing businesses. And when I say “manufacturing,” I don’t mean factories, which is what most people typically think of. Small-scale manufacturing simply refers to any business that makes a product that can be replicated and packaged. This could be as small a pottery studio with only one employee, or it could be a leather goods company with 50 employees. Or as I like to put it, “hot sauce, handbags, and hardware.”
These businesses can usually be in small, urban buildings since they’re not large enough to need an industrial complex. And because they can be housed in small spaces, small-scale manufacturers are able to contribute a unique factor to main streets and downtowns. People can shop inside, or look through the window to see things being made. They feel accessible, and one-of-a-kind all at the same time, since these businesses are usually family-owned and unique to a single location.
Most people think of “artisan” and “manufacturing” as very different sectors. But under your definition of small-scale manufacturing, they almost seem to be one-and-the-same.
Yes, exactly. And this is not just about boutique shops. There are candle, jewelry, or food product companies, for instance, that have scaled to over 100 employees, but all that revenue is going to a business in a very specific location. And even though these businesses tend to sell directly to consumers, they’re a major part of our supply chain! In fact, because these businesses often have multiple streams of revenue—storefront, ecommerce, wholesale—they’re incredibly resilient and way more disaster-proof than traditional retail.
"If we can teach the people who love to make a product how to be successful businesses, it will transform our places." - Ilana Preuss, Founder and CEO of Recast City
So why are small-scale manufacturing businesses such a powerful economic force?
First, they’re critical for building wealth at the household level. Like I mentioned earlier, many of these businesses can scale to dozens of employees, but you don’t have to scale to raise the wealth of your family.
I also mentioned earlier that as major industries leave a city or town, people lose their local pride and place-based faith. Small-scale manufacturers really restore that, and they make a community an attractive place to live. Investing in small-scale manufacturing, when understood in that way, becomes a real estate strategy in addition to an economic development strategy.
Another important note: there’s been so much talk—particularly in the past year—about how to empower historically excluded communities, especially Black Americans. And I see small-scale manufacturing as a key method of building household wealth for not only Black families, but women, Hispanic families, veterans, and other communities that have not always enjoyed the economic freedom our country has to offer.
But in addition to creating prosperity at the household level, small-scale manufacturing creates good jobs for the community. When a Black or Hispanic entrepreneur starts a business, they are able to provide jobs to their communities and neighborhoods. And when these businesses are represented in storefronts, it communicates that the community is worthy of attention and investment. It allows the businesses to be responsible for the success of their place.
You started a company, Recast City, that works with communities everywhere to build places where small-scale manufacturers thrive. As you work with different cities, what are the trends you see?
The issues different cities are facing tend to be fairly similar. Many communities were dealing with vacant storefronts before COVID, and the pandemic has completely exacerbated that problem. A lot of communities feel like they’ve lost population, whether that’s due to a declining birth rate, brain drain, or both. And this really impacts smaller towns that used to exist for a specific industry; it feels like they don’t have an economic reason for existence anymore.
But something really exciting to me has been that, because of the pandemic, people are realizing that if small businesses fail, we all fail. I want to ensure that people remember how dependent we are even as things inch back to normal. We need to take the lessons from this past year and half and channel them into building perpetual economic engines that protect our small businesses better.
There are a lot of small towns that want more small-scale manufacturing, that want that unique sense of place you’ve talked about, but don’t know what to do next. What would you say to them?
Read my book! Recast Your City was published in June 2021. It’s a DIY book that outlines five achievable steps for communities, complete with worksheets and guides.
When I get to working directly with communities, we tell them to start with two questions. The first is, “what’s the outcome you want to achieve?” And then, “who should benefit from that outcome?”
Once we answer those two questions, I challenge our clients to first identify the existing businesses that need help. Lots of communities want to jump right into creating new businesses without realizing there are lots of existing ones that could use better space, more capital, or better training. Once we establish who the current players are, we turn our attention to creating new businesses.
Communities who want to go deep can join our Recast Leaders program; we take on five communities at a time for 12 months and train them on how to do this work, create an action plan with them, and support the implementation of those priorities.
What’s the best way to help the existing small-scale manufacturers in a community?
Great question. It really does vary—some businesses want to scale to a national market, and some entrepreneurs want to keep their business as a side hustle. But there are generally three major needs that small-scale manufacturers have: business development training, space, and capital.
It’s important to keep in mind that different businesses need different kinds of support. Some manufacturers don’t need training, but they do really need space. Some need access to capital. It’s really important to know what the needs are before you try to help—otherwise you end up wasting valuable resources and local buy-in.
How does business development training, like CO.STARTERS, help?
We frequently recommend CO.STARTERS for early stage training in foundational business thinking. Not every business needs to learn how to scale right away—many need to get their ducks in a row and examine their initial assumptions. And CO.STARTERS is great for laying that solid foundation you need to grow later on.
For businesses further down the road who are ready to scale, I’ll recommend a more specialized program, like 37 Oaks, that focuses on growth of product businesses. Not everyone wants to go national, but for those who do, a targeted program can be really helpful.
You’re starting to touch on my final question, which is: what are successful communities doing differently than the rest?
One practice successful communities enact is to identify two or three near-term wins that are achievable and visible to the whole community. Those wins generate excitement and create more buy-in from local stakeholders. Columbia, Missouri did this really well. They pulled together several partnerships and launched a commercial shared kitchen for the community. That asset earned them the buy-in they needed to ask for changes in the local zoning codes. Excitement around the possibility for new restaurants generated the political will to make real change possible.
In a broader sense, communities succeed when they champion their small-scale manufacturers, understand the magnitude of local enthusiasm for the downtown, and invest in product businesses to a degree rivaling their attention to other sectors. The opportunity to be a business owner is accessible to every demographic, and there is a heritage of producing beautiful products in every culture represented in our country. If we can teach the people who love to make a product how to be successful businesses, it will transform our places.
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