The work of economic development is the essential but often unseen bedrock on which successful cities and towns—places where people love to live, work, and visit—are built. In communities like Kennett Square, residents prize their heritage, sense of place, and strong local economy, and they want growth to be smart and on a human scale. Kennett’s first-ever Economic Development Director, Nate Echeverria, has taken this remit to heart over the past three years as he’s worked to implement the kind of thoughtful, strategic planning that Kennett needs in order to continue to thrive.
Economic development can be challenging to quantify. It requires knowing a community both broadly and deeply, and it involves working with a variety of a stakeholders from municipal personnel and elected officials to business owners and developers as well as experts in a number of different fields at various levels of government. When the work of economic development is done well, it’s like a well-laid foundation—people only see, use, and enjoy the structures it supports.
In 2016, Kennett Township, the Borough of Kennett Square, and Historic Kennett Square commissioned the Kennett Region Economic Development Study. On the basis of the study’s recommendations, Historic Kennett Square worked with the municipalities to hire a director for the new Office of Economic Development. Echeverria, who has a Masters in City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania, was the unanimous choice to fill this position.
Echeverria is leaving Kennett to take a position as a Senior Planner in the city of Key West, where he’ll be working on a variety of climate change adaptation and economic development projects. But he leaves behind a solid foundation for his successor and for Kennett’s future growth. One of the projects in which Echeverria has been instrumental is in laying the groundwork that allowed the Borough and Township to apply for a $1.4 million grant to improve the infrastructure on Birch Street.
While improving the Birch Street infrastructure is a long-term goal, Echeverria has also worked on many projects with more tangible, short-term outcomes. “Finding a tenant for the long-vacant historic building at 120 East State Street is one project we’re really proud of,” Echeverria says. “Work2gether moving into that long-vacant building, and also Café de Thai taking over the former Kennett Pizza space, are good case studies that illustrate the value of the HKS Office of Economic Development. We helped find great tenants for both of those spaces, but we also helped both businesses navigate the process of opening their businesses here and secure financing through the Revolving Loan Fund.” The Borough’s Revolving Loan Fund, which Echeverria has managed, helps to attract new businesses, allows existing businesses to grow and, most recently, has been used to help businesses survive the impact of the pandemic.
“Nate and the HKS team have been great to work with as we opened our restaurant here in Kennett Square,” says Jay Dye of Café de Thai. “From the very beginning they welcomed us to town, wrote an article about our business, and helped us secure a low-interest loan for working capital. We are forever grateful to HKS for everything they do for local businesses.”
Throughout his time here, Echeverria has worked to keep the focus on all businesses throughout Kennett. In partnership with True Access Capital, for example, he’s helped bring courses in creating a business plan (taught in both English and Spanish) to Kennett. Over recent months, Echeverria has been assisting many local small businesses navigate the significant challenges of applying for various forms of COVID-19 relief. He’s also administered the Small Business Relief Fund (SBRF), a joint project of Historic Kennett Square and Square Roots Collective.
“A guiding principle of the SBRF was to promote a more equitable recovery in our community. That meant working strategically to identify and address barriers to inclusion so we could ensure that resources were available to historically disadvantaged groups,” Echeverria says. To help with this, Echeverria liaised with the PennPraxis program at the University of Pennsylvania to bring graduate student Gabriela Newell, a native Spanish speaker, to lead outreach efforts to the Latinx community over the summer. The SBRF disbursed over $267,000 in grants to a diverse range of small businesses, 63 in total, in both the Borough and the Township.
While it’s impossible to detail all of the projects Echeverria has led and facilitated, all of his work has been part of a larger vision, says Historic Kennett Square’s Executive Director Bo Wright. “As a staff we’ve been talking about this vision of Kennett Square being the most beautiful town in America,” says Wright. “But this beauty is more than skin deep. As Nate’s work has highlighted, inclusivity is critical so that everyone—from different backgrounds, generations, and walks of life—can afford to live, belong, and prosper here.”
The Kennett area has lots of natural assets, Wright says. “When I first came to Kennett Square after travelling around the country for my work with Strong Towns, I saw not only incredible potential but also a wealth of features that many places would give anything to have. We have a beautiful natural landscape, a world-renowned botanical garden on our doorstep, a deep sense of history, arts, culture, rich farmland, great schools, a diverse population—and all in close proximity to major urban centers.”
But there’s something else that sets Kennett apart. “As we saw through the SBRF, Kennett possesses an abundance of social capital,” Wrights says. “In the midst of very uncertain times we raised over $267,000 to help out our small businesses—and that came from 279 individual and corporate donors with generous matching funds from Mike Bontrager. All of which is to say that this vision is well within our reach—but achieving it requires thoughtful leadership and strategic direction. The very last thing we want is for Kennett Square to experience the kind of haphazard growth that would destroy its unique character and strong social fabric and, even worse, leave some community members out.”
“At HKS we’re committed to not letting that happen,” Wright says, “and the work of the Office of Economic Development is an essential part of the equation. Nate has done an absolutely outstanding job as Kennett’s first Economic Development Director, and he has built a great foundation for all of our work going forward.”
The position that Echeverria has filled for the past three years is unique, Wright says, because it enables both of our local municipalities to think more broadly and strategically about implementing long-range plans that will benefit the area as a whole. “We’re fortunate to have forward-thinking, collaborative, and engaged leadership at the municipal level,” Wright says. “We’ve also been really lucky to have had Nate here during these critical years in the area’s development. He’s brought not only experience and expertise, but also a thoughtful approach and heartfelt desire to help small businesses succeed. We will miss him tremendously, but we’re looking forward to what his successor will be able to accomplish because of the groundwork Nate has done.”
Echeverria won’t be here to see all of the projects in which he’s played a key part come to fruition, but he points to the greater good of the Office of Economic Development for the area. “I want to thank the HKS staff and Board, as well as all the municipal staff and elected officials I’ve worked with over the past three years,” Echeverria says. “The Kennett community definitely has the potential to become the most beautiful town in America, where everyone can belong and prosper, and I’ll be interested to see the key role that the Office of Economic Development will play in the realization of this goal.”