December 7, 2022


Supportive Business Potential

Study from Astig Planning identifies barriers, solutions to starting a business in Johnson County

The Inclusive Economic Development Plan’s draft found rent cost, gaps in resource information, missing relationships with business support systems and finding a location are among the barriers business owners face. (The Gazette)

V Fixmer-Oraiz, founder and CEO of Astig Planning, presented the plan’s findings to the Iowa City Council this week. (Submitted photo)

Megan Alter, Iowa City Council

IOWA CITY — Affordable spaces, mentorship programs and community areas are among the recommendations that would help further support minority business owners in Johnson County.

The Inclusive Economic Development Plan led by Astig Planning, a community and environmental planning business in Iowa City, has been in the works for about a year conducting research, surveys, focus groups and interviews. The plan identifies barriers and potential solutions for business owners in Johnson County who have been historically underrepresented.

V Fixmer-Oraiz, founder and CEO of Astig Planning, presented the plan’s findings to the Iowa City Council this week.

“What’s really great is that there is a lot of momentum and interest and particularly with (American Rescue Plan Act) funding,” Fixmer-Oraiz said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We’re hopeful that this plan can show there’s internal work that needs to be done, and also there’s a lot of barriers that need to be removed.”

The Iowa City Council, in process of allocating its pandemic relief dollars, intends to use the study to help guide funding decisions to support BIPOC business owners. The city tentatively has allocated $4 million to $6 million for possible initiatives.

City staff will work to develop targeted proposals, according to a city memo.

“This is a phenomenal and really thorough dive into this that just peels back layers and layers,” Mayor Pro Tem Megan Alter said at Tuesday’s council meeting.

“I think we’re going to be in a much better position to move forward because of this work.

Barriers in Johnson County

The draft plan found rent cost, gaps in resource information, missing relationships with business support systems and finding a location are among the barriers business owners face.

Another barrier is if individuals feel intimidated going into a bank or if the documents or information are inaccessible.

“We’re also talking about financial literacy,” Fixmer-Oraiz said. “We’re talking about all these kinds of things that really buy into actual financial resources.”

The study found that there aren’t many programs in Johnson County that specifically focus on serving underestimated business owners. The programs that do exist are still emerging.

Another barrier is that a majority of materials about lending or support programs are only available in English. The study found only 17 percent of institutions provide their information in a different language, oftentimes Spanish.

“It’s not that you just want to have a document translated in another language,” Fixmer-Oraiz said. “You need to have that follow-up person that can … help that person. We’re not just talking about a one and done. We’re really talking about a dynamic interaction.”

Potential solutions

The plan has five recommended action items, each with its own set of suggested changes or improvements.

Three action items are for internal changes:

  • Changes in policies and procedures at multiple levels
  • Internal work for local governments and business support institutions
  • Bolster entities that currently are supporting small businesses.

There are two action items that involve “public-facing support”:

  • Provide resources to the underestimated entrepreneurial and business community
  • Build infrastructure to creates spaces for underestimated businesses to thrive.

Opportunities for one-on-one mentorship would be a “game changer,” Fixmer-Oraiz said. It would be an opportunity for an emerging business owner to hear from someone who has navigated the financial landscape, legal terms and experienced the same barriers.

Other potential solutions identified include affordable spaces, grant opportunities, translated documents, community networking and accelerator programs.

Fixmer-Oraiz said among the next steps includes presenting findings to other local governments in the county and returning to see where the recommendations fit with funding priorities.

“Nobody wants a plan to sit on a shelf, and this plan is too important,” Fixmer-Oraiz said.

Draft of the Inclusive Economic Development Plan by Gazetteonline on Scribd

About the study

Astig Planning wanted to get a clearer picture of barriers and resources for “underestimated community members” who own or are interested in starting a business in the county.

Underestimated community members include Black, Latino, Asian American, immigrants and formerly incarcerated individuals, among others who have been historically underrepresented.

“This plan is in large part a study,” the plan reads. “When our business community was seeking to understand the needs of our underestimated businesses, there was a lack of data collection and findings to quantify and help direct a course of action.”

The effort has been led by Astig Planning with help from GreenState Credit Union, Iowa City Area Development Group, Iowa City Area Business Partnership and the Multicultural Development Center of Iowa, among other groups.

A total of 105 individuals responded to the survey, Fixmer-Oraiz said. Out of those, 63 are existing business owners, 17 are emerging business owners and 24 are support institutions for businesses.

There are 25 different races identified and 29 ethnicities identified among the respondents, Fixmer-Oraiz said.

“You’re just not going to see that kind of robust identification. and as we know, that matters,” Fixmer-Oraiz said. “People feeling seen throughout this process was incredibly important to us.”

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