Businesses that make things are on the rise again

Small manufacturers, especially, are finding niches in our cities. The opportunities are abundant, but how to jumpstart these entrepreneurs? What do they need to grow, particularly in urban areas? How can the rich resources of our cities be activated and connected to support artisans?

That's the focus of the latest in the IDEALAB Cincinnati series, coming up on December 5 at Memorial Hall in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. IDEALAB reMaking Industry will be a day of thought leadership and networking centered on encouraging small manufacturing in the urban core. New research will be presented, best practices from other cities will be shared and connections will be made to further the growth of small makers.

"It's a chance to bring people around the topic of small-scale, artisan manufacturing and the impact it can have on cities," said Matt Anthony, a director of Cincinnati Made, one of the event collaborators.

The daylong event is expected to be attended by urban manufacturers, economic development professionals, neighborhood leaders, small business owners and others interested in the social impact of urban growth.

Manufacturing certainly never went away, but it's in transition. The Greater Cincinnati metro region lost 20 percent of its manufacturing jobs since in the years between 2007 and 2016. But the sector still accounts for more than 114,000 jobs here, the second largest employer group (after health care). Perhaps most significantly, despite the decline in the number of jobs, the total payroll of manufacturing employers here amounts to more than $8 billion, the most of any industry sector.

Those statistics inform new research conducted by the Urban Manufacturing Alliance that will be presented at the conference. The group studied six cities, including Cincinnati, to understand the industrial network of small manufacturers in each of those urban centers. The other five cities examined were Baltimore, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore.

In Cincinnati, data was collected from 103 urban manufacturers, most of them "small batch" makers. Katy Stanton of the Urban Manufacturing Alliance will dive into the details and the numbers at the conference, but some big-picture impressions stand out:

-- Most of these artisan companies are small; some are very small.
-- Many of the owners have "day jobs" or other employment.
-- Lots of them sell their products beyond the Cincinnati market.
-- And -- this is big -- they've grown in the last few years, and they expect to continue growing.

And many of these makers are homegrown talent; they're making products here because it's their home.
We hope to break down some of the silos that exist that you didn't even know existed. Matt Anthony
It adds up to big opportunities -- for growth, for employment, for urban revitalization. But big challenges exist too, of course: locating affordable space inside the city, finding qualified, reliable workers, improving access to capital and garnering support from policy makers and neighborhood leaders. That's what the organizers hope this event will help accomplish -- remove the barriers that can stifle growth.

"We hope to break down some of the silos that exist that you didn't even know existed," Anthony said. Katy Stanton calls it "ecosystem building." That's what the Urban Manufacturing Alliance, a network of 750 members in 150 cities, is engaged in.

She will deliver the morning keynote, delving into the results of UMA’s State of Urban Manufacturing research. Her group partnered with the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland on the study, which is meant to broaden the understanding of the urban manufacturing sector in Cincinnati (including its entrepreneurs and employees), discover opportunities to increase interactions between smaller and larger manufacturers, and recommend actions cities can take to help firms thrive and create jobs.

The lunchtime keynoter will be David Adams, the University of Cincinnati’s chief innovation officer and the leader of the newly formed 1819 Innovation Hub in Cincinnati’s Uptown Innovation Corridor. Adams leads the university’s interface with industry, and the Innovation Hub is designed to be a magnet for new ideas, creative solutions and strategic partnerships.

In the same vein, Stanton said her group aims to broaden networks within cities, help organizations identify and connect with artisan makers and works to support them. "We don't just parachute in and say here's the three things you should be doing," Stanton said. Creating a vibrant artisan ecosystem can strengthen cities, neighborhoods and families. When small makers grow, everyone wins, and jobs and wages can grow.

"Manufacturing still represents an entry point and a growth path to the middle class," Anthony said.

Organizations whose missions include helping the underserved, lifting up neighborhoods, building capacity among communities and reinvesting in the urban core can all be part of this ecosystem. That can include: nonprofit organizations, philanthropists, investors, urban planners, students, social entrepreneurs and developers. Organizers expect people from all such fields to attend and participate in the December conference.

It also includes faith-based organizations, such as one that was announced in Chicago earlier this year. Ministers for Manufacturing was created to advocate for investment and training in manufacturing. “We’re concerned about the lack of livable wages and employment in our communities and we see manufacturing as a way to build the middle class,” the Chicago Tribune quoted the Rev. Anthony Haynes, chairman of the group.

Cities are fertile places to grow small makers. "There's a density of consumers, a density of resources," Stanton said. "There's a history of manufacturing. These legacy manufacturers matter to makers."

Cincinnati, of course, is proud of its rich history in manufacturing, a heritage that's alive and well today with industrial-sized employers such as Procter & Gamble, General Electric, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota, as well as many smaller and mid-sized manufacturers. And resources also exist to support the artisan makers.

One is Matt Anthony's group, Cincinnati Made. The group created a business accelerator, called First Batch, dedicated to strengthening local manufacturing. The mission of First Batch is to turn protoypes into products and products into sustainable businesses. Businesses accepted into the program can benefit from desk and meeting space, protoype space, mentoring, connections in the legal, design, packaging and logistics worlds, and small-scale funding. About 20 small businesses have graduated from the program, including makers of apparel, tools, jewelry and athletic equipment.

And First Batch is just one example of the many diverse organizations and the people who power them who can help the new era of urban manufacturing flourish. All that needs to happen is to make the connections.

Tickets for IDEALAB reMaking Industry on sale now. $50 per person includes access to all sessions, morning coffee and light breakfast, box lunch, and an informal social hour. Save the date now and stay tuned for more about ticket purchasing, the program schedule, regional and local presenter profiles, travel and accommodation information. Special $29 price for students.

IDEALAB reMaking Industry is sponsored by The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation, People's Liberty, Issue Media Group and Soapbox Cincinnati.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.