These are exciting times for social entrepreneurs in Syracuse, New York. That’s the message I got from a conversation I had with W. Michael Short, founder and principal of Short Enterprises, who just won the Best of Syracuse Award for his work as a social entrepreneur in helping to revitalize our city. Through our conversations and a series of email exchanges, I got a picture of a city open to innovative public/private partnerships and welcoming of those who want to lead socially beneficial development efforts and community initiatives.
Opportunities for social change through innovative partnerships exist here in ways that they may not in some larger cities. We may even be able to serve as a model for accomplishing positive change for other smaller cities struggling with similar challenges such as unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, and declining population. As someone committed to a vision of urban revitalization that preserves and strengthens existing neighborhoods, I find that prospect exciting.
Michael and I first met when he was a Syracuse University Graduate Fellow and Deputy Director of the nonprofit Near Westside Initiative (NWSI). His commitment to transforming Syracuse through positive change was evident then, when he spearheaded efforts to launch a revolving micro-loan program for community entrepreneurs in partnership with the South Side Innovation Center (SSIC), Cooperative Federal Credit Union, and the Central New York Community Foundation. He also created and chaired the Near Westside Business Association and developed a neighborhood-based small business development program with partners at SSIC and the New York State Small Business Development Center at Onondaga Community College. These efforts were all part of the overall mission of the NWSI to move what was once the 9th poorest neighborhood in the United States in a more positive direction.
His efforts to assist small community businesses, Michael explains, allowed him to work with people like Bob Herz, whose leadership at the SSIC resulted in it being named the National Business Incubator of the year in 2012, and who has now gone on to serve as Director of the New York State Senate Select Committee on Science, Technology, Incubation, & Entrepreneurship.
“People like Bob really showed me how to get things done and showed me how an entrepreneur could do good in the community,” Michael added.
But what’s a social entrepreneur? There are different definitions but common threads involve those who develop and pursue partnerships between the private sector, nonprofits, and government entities to solve communal and social challenges such as low literacy rates, poverty, urban revitalization, low employment, or developing sustainable solutions to environmental problems.
In Michael’s case this has involved spearheading public/private partnerships to help turn a vicious cycle of community challenges into a virtuous one in Central New York by focusing on diverse projects involving community development, low literacy rates in children, green infrastructure, storm-water management, and the redevelopment of derelict, abandoned, and tax delinquent properties.
As Michael described it to me, in addition to bringing partners together and helping facilitate the process of developing a vision for change, his role has included being a kind of translator, helping partners communicate better to define challenges and achieve common goals more effectively and efficiently. He credits his educational background with providing him the skills necessary to serve in this capacity. Specifically, he notes his experiences at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, widely regarded as the most prestigious communications school in the United States.
According to Michael, “transparent, strategic, and reciprocal communications management is a crucial ingredient in any successful public/private partnership.”
After learning under the trusted-hand of SU’s Vice President for Community Engagement and Economic Development, Marilyn Higgins, who he considers a mentor and inspiration, Michael launched his own social enterprise in 2011 to pursue the social goals he cared about.
“As a Graduate Fellow at SU, I was able to be involved in large-scale efforts to transform the community through projects like the Near Westside Initiative and Connective Corridor,” Michael explained. “I was also able to learn from and work with community leaders such as Marilyn Higgins, Paul NoJaim, Anne Messenger, Carole Horan, the Gifford Foundation, the Community Foundation, the list goes on and on, and these relationships have changed my life and inspired me to start my own social enterprise.”
One of his early projects after launching Short Enterprises involved a partnership with the Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County (LCOC) and the Central New York Community Foundation in authoring the City of Syracuse’s Literacy Action Plan. That plan recognized the centrality of literacy to overcoming the social and economic challenges associated with poverty and unemployment.
As stated in the City’s Literacy Action Plan, “considerable steps have been taken to facilitate access to comprehensive literacy and community services for individuals and families as they cycle in and out of poverty.”
They were recognized in 2013 by the National Campaign for Grade Level Reading. Michael credits the persistence and determination of Virginia Carmody, LCOC Executive Director, with moving these noteworthy efforts forward.
“Working closely with community partners, I am convinced our targeted and measurable community impact strategy will improve the educational outcomes for disadvantaged children in our community,” said Carmody.
Two of the other more publicized areas of focus for Michael have involved innovative green infrastructure installations associated with the Save the Rain Program of Onondaga County and the redevelopment of derelict, abandoned, contaminated, and tax delinquent properties on the City’s Near Westside.
Both of these efforts have been associated with expansion efforts at the Onondaga Commons health and human services campus, which involves a number of innovative private/public partnerships designed to benefit the entire community.
Michael explained that the plan for the 5.5-acre Onondaga Commons has several phases but will ultimately be determined by the property owner as the efforts move forward.
“We typically assist property owners in identifying opportunities and help them develop a strategy to achieve goals that are in line with the broader community,” Michael explained. “In the case of Onondaga Commons, one of the more visible projects we have assisted with, we were able to develop and put in motion plans to address a number of vacant neglected properties and incorporate what will be the largest green infrastructure project privately pursued in Onondaga County once complete.”
These green infrastructure projects will manage up to 10 million gallons of rainwater runoff and storm water annually and prevent the overload of the local sewer system, which in turn will stop raw sewage from overflowing into Onondaga Lake.
Working with Kyle Thomas of Natural Systems Engineering, who he cited as a key partner, Michael was able to develop the framework for the green infrastructure projects and secured over a millions dollars of County funding to support its implementation. (Read More)
Michael was quick to credit Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney for her vision in spearheading the “Save the Rain” program, which among other efforts have resulted in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency naming Onondaga County and Syracuse one of the country’s top 10 leaders in green infrastructure. (Read More)
The interconnection of the deterioration and abandonment of derelict buildings with an overall decline in the social state of a neighborhood, a reduction in tax base, declining services, low literacy, high unemployment and chronic drug use seem intuitive. It is also supported by evidence, such as that provided by a report that Michael referred me to by the National Vacant Properties Campaign and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (Read Report)
This report shows why it’s vital to reclaim vacant buildings in neighborhoods facing social and economic challenges. Understanding this, Michael worked with Onondaga Commons to expand its footprint to include a number of adjacent vacant properties. Restoring these properties will be another way to contribute to the well-being and economic revitalization of this challenged Near Westside community.
In particular, he commended the City of Syracuse, and Ben Walsh in particular, the City’s Deputy Commissioner for Neighborhood & Business Development, for his continued support and assistance throughout the process of acquiring these properties and for serving as a resource on this and other projects that he is working on.
When asked how other young people with similar interests could get involved in efforts to better the community, Michael explained that volunteering your time is key.
“Get involved… you have to be willing to give your time and devote yourself to a cause greater than yourself without the expectation of any individual reward,” he explained. “By doing this you can start to build a reputation as a ‘go to’ person with good ideas who gets things done.”
In Michael’s case, he has served on the board of directors of the Huntington Family Centers since 2010, a local nonprofit settlement house focused on providing year round programming designed to strengthen families and individuals in need through an array of youth, family, and adult services.
“When you get involved in these types of efforts you meet other good intentioned people with similar interests and goals for a better community,” explained Michael who now serves as chair of the board’s marketing and communications committee.
Michael also serves on the Neighborhood Advisory Council for the Westside community center run by P.E.A.C.E., Inc. – also known as the “little white house of hope,” as Michael refers to it. He explains that the work of the center’s director, Mary Alice Smothers, is a particular inspiration to him.
“She works every single day and night to make sure the youth in the struggling Near Westside community have access to opportunities for growth, learning, and enrichment,” said Michael, who considers Smothers a close friend and mentor. “Mary Alice has devoted her life to making sure these kids know that they can do or be any thing that they set their minds to… she is an inspiration to me on a daily basis and I would do anything to support her.”
And what’s next for Michael Short? He continues to work with a diverse array of clients and says that he has a number of exciting projects in the works. One in particular involves “an exciting opportunity” to partner with the Clinton Global Initiative, which he hopes will bring attention to and further leverage the impressive work being done in Central New York.
“More on that to come soon,” he said with a smile.
He also says he is exploring opportunities for his own development company in order to fully realize his vision of transforming communities in Syracuse and beyond in a positive direction through public/private partnerships.
If you’re interested in doing something similar, I think he might find the time to give you some advice and encouragement.
For more information about Short Enterprises, visit them online at www.shortenterprises.biz
To connect with Nina Housman, click here.