Last week, our client the Long Island City Partnership released the first phase of the first-ever Long Island City Comprehensive Plan. This report presents findings from a wide-ranging research effort, and recommends strategies for guiding LIC’s development to not only preserve but also capitalize on the neighborhood’s diverse mix of uses. We developed and analyzed core components of the research supporting the report, in particular by engaging local businesses. Through a survey and series of supplemental focus groups and interviews, we supported LICP to understand how businesses currently operate. Our research illuminated the central challenges of a variety of local stakeholders, and shaped LICP’s thinking on how to support the businesses, cultural institutions, and community organizations that make up this changing neighborhood.

licstudyarea-2016-12-01As we reflected on our work with LICP, we got to thinking about planning for change in all New York City neighborhoods – the ever-evolving metropolis where we live and work. We are big believers in the power of collaborative, community processes to create development plans that are actionable, sustainable over time, and make sense for the communities in which they are created. In particular, when it comes to making smart decisions about economic development interventions, the on-the-ground insights of businesses are essential to fostering a vibrant economic ecosystem. For instance, we knew that LIC was a dynamic, thriving community – with rapidly expanding residential units – but we couldn’t be sure its businesses were planning on staying in the area. Our business survey confirmed that 70% of businesses are, and that 87% anticipate growing while they do. We could then delve into their needs through focus groups and conversations to determine which policies will support growth and create a plan tailored for LIC businesses.

When implementing a business engagement strategy, we think it’s important to do a few things:

  • Identify your initial assumptions, and be prepared to disprove them. We all have anecdotal evidence and associations around the experience in any given neighborhood (we’re New Yorkers after all). The first step is outlining those assumptions – what you suspect the business challenges and opportunities are – so you can test those ideas through business outreach. Some of what you go in with may be validated, some may be refined, and some you may go back to the drawing board, but all of that is valuable intel that you can use to develop a plan that’s relevant to the community you’re working in.
  • Use business engagement to get to know the neighborhood. Really. Business owners have a unique perspective on the area’s infrastructure, its culture and politics, particularly if they hire or interact with local residents as part of business operations. Don’t just ask them about what it’s like to operate a business in the area; ask them about what it’s like to be in the area. We heard a lot about infrastructure challenges that impact business operations while working on the LIC report, but we also heard about the challenges of attracting families to a neighborhood with limited school slots. Business owners’ emphasis on education prompted an additional look at this policy issue for the community at large with the added understanding on why this issue mattered to local businesses due to its impact on who lives and works in LIC.
  • Know the data you need to gather and design an engagement strategy that will get you there. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that local business owners are busy – really busy. Their time is valuable, so it’s important to be intentional when you’re asking to use it. To accomplish this, ask: what do I need to learn from the business owners? That will point to how you might most efficiently and effectively get the information you need. For instance:
    • Electronic surveys can be useful for generating hard data on the business experience, as well as going shallow on a wide variety of issues. More than 500 unique survey responses provided insight into LIC business’ expansion plans, workforce needs, and challenges to operations.
    • One-on-one interviews can be useful for digging deeper into a targeted set of issues to more thoroughly test and refine a specific line of thinking. Key business interviews helped us to understand the why behind the survey answers.
    • Focus groups can be useful for getting a variety of perspectives quickly, and being able to compare experiences across industries, business sizes, or locations. In LIC, we talked to expanding commercial and industrial businesses in two targeted focus groups to understand the challenges each set of business owners were facing when trying to expand in LIC – information that informed recommendations to make it easier to operate in LIC.

All stakeholder engagement is valuable, don’t get us wrong. But understanding local business perspective can preserve and invigorate a city in a way that fits the landscape and is successful over time. We are proud to have helped this process for LICP, and look forward to the next opportunity to do so.

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