Big is needed, but small can be beautiful


Someone told me recently, “The American auto industry is dead.”

The next day, we learned of the magnitude of Chrysler’s ambitions and plans.

Thankfully for Toledo, the American auto industry is far from dead.

At the same time, I think we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

We should keep after the big brass ring — the Fortune 500 companies and new manufacturing. Our location is ideal for them. Our work force is the best in the nation.

But we also should be developing a business culture friendly to small players — independent entrepreneurs.

The good news is, there is virtual consensus on this point in the Toledo political and economic community.

As I was leaving an evening meeting on scholarships for central-city students this week, a local businessman came after me. He had the urgency of an Old Testament prophet.

He said, “We need a summit on jobs in northwest Ohio. We need new jobs in new start-up industries and small businesses. Nothing else matters but jobs. Nothing. Everything else is a distraction.”

He’s right.

It’s a cliche to say that small business is the backbone of our economy, and one that is only half-true.

Ford and U.S. Steel built the modern American economy, not the Ma and Pa drug store.

But, without small business, we lose a lot of enterprise, we lose community, and we lose a form of accountability that is just never going to be present at Wendy’s or Walmart.

I like to go to Schorling’s market in West Toledo. Groceries may cost a little more than they do at Kroger, but I also have a neighborhood experience, with real people. I am willing to pay a little more for that.

I also notice that Schorling’s employs young people.

Imagine the difference three to five small businesses could make in the central city: a grocery store, a dry cleaner, and maybe a theater running old movies, family movies, and art films.

Teenagers in the central city, gang members and potential gang members, aren’t going to get jobs at Jeep. Not right off, anyway. But small-business jobs could change young lives.

There are two models: One is the Cleveland Clinic’s “evergreen” program, championed by former Councilman Joe McNamara. Here, a big corporate entity sponsors a small-neighborhood business, either with a contract for service or a start-up loan.

The other is Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, which reaches out to gang members with friendship and work. The work is generated by small businesses. The first was a reopened bakery.

A few weeks ago, I met a very interesting small-businessman named David Cameron, a guy who clearly could have done anything in life.

He owns a successful jewelry store. He’s done well with it. He is a pillar of the community. He employs people. And, he’s had a good time.

He told me about how older couples, about to embark on late-life marriages, are as excited as young people in their 20s when they buy their rings. “Pretty cool,” he said.

Small business is not the total answer for Toledo. There is no one answer. But small is beautiful.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.