Boston , United States

From Boston’s Back Streets to Mainstream Success

Boston Redevelopment Agency

February 11, 2009

Immigrant-owned businesses are fueling urban economies

In a low brown mid size warehouse in Boston’s South End, Amado and his family have a janitorial wholesale supplies company. For the past 15 years, they have provided the commercial equipment and cleaning products needed to maintain the clusters of high-rise office and condos in downtown Boston.

With ten employees, six of whom are part of his extended family, Amado’s business is a small, unglamorous and a behind the scenes operation. But it is also well-managed, highly profitable and through the “Boston Back Streets Program” now being recognized and supported as an essential component of Boston’s social and economic traffic.

The City of Boston is actually recognised as having coined the term “back streets” when they launched the “Boston Back Streets” program to provide a range of land use and business assistance strategies to Boston’s industrial sector. “Backstreet” Businesses are generally defined as small to medium size light industrial or commercial businesses that create products or provide services in manufacturing, wholesale, commercial, logistics, construction and food processing. In contrast, “Mainstreet” offices and retail businesses are those that typically sell previously prepared materials or provide services directly to the consumer. While “Backstreet” businesses complement those on “Mainstreet” they tend to be unknown and overlooked.

Workers in Backstreet jobs are more likely to be racial and ethnic minorities since these businesses create good middle income jobs that are accessible to all levels of education; see Boston Back Streets data tables . On average, Back Street businesses pay salaries that are double what is offered on “Main Street” – making them critical in achieving greater inclusion and equality for newcomers and minority groups in the city.

The City of Boston identified more than 4,000 small and mid-size light industrial and commercial businesses that operate within the city’s boundaries but away from the main areas. Collectively, these “Backstreet” companies generate more than 100,000 jobs (one in five jobs in Boston) and pay over $30 million annually in taxes and represent a key lever to the city’s economic development and success.

The Back Streets Program…
Boston’s “Back Streets Program” was launched in November 2001 by Mayor Thomas Merino when the city’s economic development office identified that profitable and well-established backstreet businesses were leaving the city because they lacked the resources they needed to grow. There were problems of inadequate space, competing land uses, insufficient parking and difficulty navigating through the bureaucracy of City Hall.

Prior to this time, Backstreet Businesses were not formally organized, and had no way to address these obstacles in a unified way and make a case for their needs. In addition, most felt overlooked by “Main Street” business organizations and were reluctant to raise their concerns with them.

Boston Mayor Thomas Merino had the foresight to recognize the potential of these immigrant businesses to support the local interests, “The goal of the Back Streets program is to support Boston’s many small and medium-sized industrial and commercial companies by creating the conditions in which they can grow and prosper, and attract new manufacturing and commercial businesses to the city.”

Beyond creating a healthy business environment for these businesses to operate, the Back Streets program leads the way with its recognition that small to mid size business that are primarily immigrant owned are also the nexus at which social and economic interest meet. While social programs form a safety net, they generally tend to offer few opportunities for personal development or genuine career opportunities with livable wages.

Back Streets companies encourage employees to develop career skills, help immigrant adapt by improving language skills, local work experience and servings as a conduit for the delivery of services such as financial planning and home ownership opportunities. Back Street companies are generally very willing to take these socially beneficial tasks on since it is ultimately in their own economic self interest to build a staff of skilled and loyal employees.

Specific Sector Support…
The Back Streets Program provides support in four main areas including: real estate, work force, business assistance and resources and partnerships.

Real Estate
Land use and better planning to support Back Street businesses became a primary driver of the program. The City of Boston adopted the goal of no net loss of the industrial space that these businesses require. To protect industrial land from residential or institutional conversion, the City of Boston strengthened the zoning review guidelines. The Back Streets Program also launched a commercial and industrial “site finder” to help growing and new companies find the space that they need to operate successfully. This portal uses internal city resources, as well as information from Boston’s leading commercial and industrial real estate brokers to track and suggest suitable locations for expanding Backstreet businesses; click here to access the Industrial Site Finder.

Work Force
The Back Streets Program helps companies find, train and develop workers through a job readiness services such as career centres, English language and job training programs.

Business Assistance
The Back Street Program provides a team of ombudsmen to the Back Street Business community to provide solutions, resources and contacts as they relate to specific business needs. This includes solutions to issues on zoning, permitting and how to navigate City Hall.

Financing and Partnerships
The Back Street Program helps direct resources towards these businesses including low interest rate loans to qualified businesses and tax exempt financing for projects and equipment with costs over $3 million.

Making it Work for You:

  • Small business needs are complex --the city of Boston made it easier with one stop shopping for zoning, permits, and business technical assistance
  • Immigrant owned businesses are a natural nexus for social and economic integration, helping immigrants improve language skills, acquire work experience and learn about financial management and property ownership
  • Advertise for success. Highlight the contributions of local Back Street business members through city-wide promotional campaigns and help stimulate your local economy.

For this Good Idea contact:

Salvatore DiStefano , Back Streets Manager
Boston Redevelopment Agency
One City Hall Square
Boston, MA, United States,

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