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City Alive initiative spurs collaborative entrepreneurship

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The wave of innovation and entrepreneurship that’s swept through Albuquerque in recent years is, by and large, the brainchild of a broad collective effort by some of the city’s best and brightest leaders grouped together in a 3-year-old initiative called City Alive.

That initiative has brought nearly 200 local leaders together in joint efforts to build a new, collaborative approach to economic development in Albuquerque, one that aims to rope the city’s diverse populations into homegrown, sustainable programs to lift the community’s overall livelihood and well-being through grass-roots entrepreneurship. And it’s at the heart of nearly everything now happening in Downtown Albuquerque, from building a thriving Innovation District in the city’s core to providing training, education and resources across the city for existing and aspiring entrepreneurs to build and grow businesses.

Through those collective efforts, participating entities and individuals have helped attract about $30 million in funding for an array of local programs. That includes Albuquerque’s growing base of business accelerators and incubators, novel programs to channel low-cost and flexible loans to cash-strapped entrepreneurs, training, education and even infrastructure development.

The Living Cities Integration Initiative, a national program backed by large banks and foundations, gave birth to Albuquerque’s newfound collective efforts. But that initial impetus has since taken on a vibrant life of its own.

Robin Brule, City Alive’s chief strategist and senior vice president for community relations at Nusenda Credit Union, said it’s all about pulling the city’s public and private entities together into a broad coalition focused on “collective impact strategies.”

“It’s about knowing that our challenges can’t be solved overnight and realizing that it takes a lot of people and entities working together to resolve issues over time,” Brule said. “It means thinking about economic development differently, with integrated and aligned strategies among diverse partners.”

It all began in 2013, when Living Cities selected Albuquerque and seven other cities for initial funding to plan strategies that would empower local communities to create grassroots, sustainable economic development that embraces all sectors, including low-income populations, minority groups and women. That coincided with local efforts to build an Innovation District in the city’s core through a public and private partnership, initially spearheaded by the University of New Mexico, the city, Nusenda and others.

Living Cities’ initial focus on planning pulled nearly 100 leaders from diverse entities into a yearlong process to identify the most critical challenges impeding sustainable development, and to create collaborative strategies to resolve them. That process got everybody working together on the same page, allowing for much better, targeted use of existing resources.

Based on that process, Living Cities selected Albuquerque as one of five cities it would continue working with to implement their strategies.

To date, Living Cities has provided about $1 million for those efforts. More important, it’s connected local leaders with Living Cities’ national networks, offering access to technical assistance, and to more funding opportunities from entities connected to the program, such as the Kellogg Foundation.

Kellogg has provided nearly $7 million for City Alive-inspired programs and projects, such as Central New Mexico Community College’s STEMulus Center and FUSE Makerspace Downtown, a new Co-op Capital program created by Nusenda to offer struggling entrepreneurs access to low-cost loans, and support for minority-owned businesses through the South Valley Economic Development Corp.

City Alive also inspired local foundations and businesses to award grants for programs that help build entrepreneurship and innovation. That includes the McCune and Albuquerque Community foundations, Public Service Company of New Mexico, Intel Corp., and New Mexico Gas Co.’s parent firm Emera.

Albuquerque Community Foundation, for example, is the prime sponsor of the Mayor’s Prize, an annual, competitive awards program that’s given $600,000 over the last three years to local nonprofits for entrepreneurial training and development programs.

“We’ve developed common ground to move forward,” said foundation Vice President Kelli Cooper. “Three years ago, I wasn’t even working with other foundations to partner on anything. Now, cross-sector partnering has snowballed, and it’s helped build an entrepreneurial ecosystem here that didn’t exist before.”

It’s also inspired local institutions and organizations to work together in many new ways. CNM and Wells Fargo, for example, have provided funding for the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce to create a business accelerator for Spanish-speaking immigrants that has trained 400 entrepreneurs in six cohorts since 2014, said the chamber’s chief operating officer, Synthia Jaramillo.

“City Alive has challenged us to collaborate with many other organizations and think differently about working together to support small businesses and immigrant entrepreneurs,” Jaramillo said. “It’s inspired us to align our efforts with other groups.”

City Alive also launched some of its own projects, including two new business “navigator” programs – one for Main Street entrepreneurs and one for technology startups – to provide mentoring and technical assistance and help connect them with community resources. And it created a website and mobile app for people to rapidly locate and connect with programs and resources.

City Alive’s overarching goal is 10,000 new “living wage” jobs by 2025, said the program spokesperson Sommer Smith.

Demetric Duckett, Living Cities’ associate director of Capital Innovation, said Albuquerque has created “rich” strategies to draw people from all sectors into sustainable economic development, including low-income and minority populations.

“A lot can be learned from Albuquerque,” Duckett said. “We’re watching closely to share its achievements with other cities.”

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