Robert Walsh understands how large cities can promote economic growth. Since 2002, he has worked in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration as the New York City Commissioner of Small Business Services (SBS). During his tenure, he has reshaped SBS to respond to the needs of New York’s 200,000 small businesses, and has overseen the economic revitalization initiated by the city’s 67 Business Improvement Districts (BIDs).
Commissioner Walsh visited Georgia from March 12 – 17 as part of EWMI’s Policy, Advocacy, and Civil Society Development Program in Georgia (G-PAC). During his visit, the Head of Economic Affairs in Tbilisi, the Business Ombudsman, and other Georgian government leaders met with him to explore long-term strategies for developing Georgia’s urban centers. Walsh also met with students in Ilia State University's new MPA program, encouraging them to think carefully about how successful international strategies can be applied in Georgia.
Walsh gave the keynote speech at EWMI G-PAC’s “Public Policy in Action” conference on March 16th in Batumi. His speech discussed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's successful four-pronged approach to revitalizing the city: improving quality of life to attract and retain employers and employees, creating a pro-business environment, developing infrastructure, and encouraging innovation and economic competitiveness. Walsh emphasized the importance of innovative projects like the Highline, which turned an abandoned rail line into an elevated park, in restoring prosperity to neglected areas of New York. Throughout the keynote, Walsh discussed ways in which similar innovative strategies might be applied in Tbilisi and Batumi.
In his keynote address and throughout his visit, the Commissioner highlighted the success of BIDs in New York City in promoting economic growth, and spoke about their potential in Georgia. BIDs are partnerships between businesses and local governments that have helped develop cities around the world.
On March 22, Walsh submitted a report to the Tbilisi city government recommending greater public investment in central Tbilisi to ensure it stays vibrant in the face of increasing suburban development. Walsh cautioned that this suburban trend led to economic collapse in the urban cores of many U.S. cities.
In his report, Walsh notes Tbilisi’s “bustling commercial corridors,” and mentions the many ancient churches and distinctive buildings that make Tbilisi unique.
“With extra attention … these retail corridors would be even stronger … and serve as fantastic attractions,” Walsh writes. He goes on to say that BIDs in downtown Tbilisi could help maintain streetscapes, attract large businesses, market tourist attractions, and advocate for central Tbilisi’s economic needs to local government.
The Commissioner’s visit began a dialogue between the Tbilisi and New York City governments. In May 2012, Mayor Gigi Ugulava and other Tbilisi city officials will travel to New York to meet with Mayor Bloomberg and his staff to discuss how New York City’s development strategy could be useful in Tbilisi city planning.