Stakeholders' voice is an important part of planning, says Montgomery official

December 1, 2021

Name: Gary Sharp

Title: Grants Coordinator and Economic Developer

City: Montgomery, Ala.

Gary Sharp thought he had a strategy figured out on how to boost Black ownership of small businesses in Montgomery.

But it turned out the residents who needed his help had other thoughts.

Sharp, a Grants Coordinator and Economic Developer in Montgomery, and his city colleagues initially were planning a “holistic and comprehensive” approach to boosting Black entrepreneurial activity in the city. Sharp says the team planned to look at crime statistics, increase beautification efforts and use market research and help budding business owners understand the macro social and economic tail winds they might be facing.

But after taking part in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ innovation training program, Sharp and his colleagues began reaching out to stakeholders to see what they needed—and the answer was very different. “We talked to dozens of individuals and collected hundreds of data points,” Sharp says, “and what we found was that over and over people said they needed more information. The number one problem they faced was a shortage of information.

The information gap the Montgomery team discovered, particularly in conversations with restaurant owners and potential restaurant owners, was a single place where would-be entrepreneurs could find the city regulations, licensing requirements and other administration hurdles that they would need to manage.

With that data in mind, Sharp and company went in a very different direction than they had first intended. They set up an online app to show small business how to actually get started in the city, “a roadmap to start a small business in the city of Montgomery.”

The roadmap has only been live for about two months, but Sharp says the anecdotal reaction the city is getting through a feedback button on the portal is overwhelmingly positive. “I think it's making a tremendous difference, a really positive impact on the stakeholders,” Sharp says. To increase the site’s visibility, there’s a link to it on the city’s main web page and Sharp and his team also have distributed pamphlets about it across the city.

Sharp says the biggest impact of the innovation training on the project was redirecting his team to take the pulse of the residents who needed help the most. “If you don’t talk to stakeholders who are going to be directly impacted, you have a really difficult time satisfying their needs, because you don’t know what their needs are,” Sharp says.

Pro tip: “Keep a very open mind and don’t be surprised by the information you receive from stakeholders.”