Economic gardening has deep roots.

Have you ever been driving and a bumper sticker saying, “buy locally; think globally” catches your eye? I hate to sound demanding, but it’s time to start thinking locally as well.

In light of the sluggish economy and massive lay-offs by large corporations, there has been a lot of focus on growing local economies and pulling oneself from the bootstraps, so to speak. But economic gardening has been around for more than 20 years. If we’re serious about creating a robust future for ourselves, it’s time to open the history books.

Until 1987, if a community started talking about growing its economy, the conversation naturally turned to economic recruiting, or job hunting. The idea was that local communities go out and try to recruit outside companies to open a unit in that community, thus “hunting” for new jobs. That was great in theory, but the recruiting process often boiled down to community leaders appealing to those companies’ bottom lines: “Come here — we’re cheaper than the big city!” Who wants to compete with second- and third-world countries in a race to the bottom wages?

Then, a man named Chris Gibbons found a home for another approach to economic development. In our story, the community was Littleton, Colo. The big-business employer was Martin Marietta. Thousands of people lost their jobs, and downtown vacancy was nearing 30 percent. Sitting at a 10,000-foot-elevation, the term “ghost town” was not unreasonable.

The town had always been a mining town. Gibbons talked to a few local entrepreneurs that had developed a new marketable product within the mining industry. Gibbons saw a future here: don’t try to recruit outside businesses to a town with which they don’t connect. Instead, develop Littleton for what it was: a mining town.

Now, in 2010, Gibbons is working with other communities to create economic gardening programs suitable to the individual needs of the the region. He stresses that economic gardening is more than just buying locally — it’s about changing local cultures to nourish the existing businesses to their next growth stage. Implementing an economic gardening program is complex, but can be broken down into three essential stages:

  • Information. How many business owners have a library card? The correct answer should be 100 percent. Most public libraries offer free access to multiple business research databases that answer most entrepreneurs’ most plaguing questions. Information is available, but community organizers are often ineffective in communicating its availability. If business owners started with information, then plan execution would be far more seamless.
  • Infrastructure. Yes, we’re talking about buildings. Many businesses are actually one person operating from home (including The Write People LLC!). What’s stopping these people from occupying offices? The availability of office space. If rent is insane, most people will shy away from leasing office space. And if they don’t have official office space, many business owners feel silly thinking about hiring addition staff. Or communicating with other business owners. Communities need office space, tech parks, small business development centers and business incubators… you get the idea. If you want to see your community thrive with successful businesses, it’s reasonable that your community provides space for these businesses to operate!
  • Connections. Unfortunately, a lot of businesses remain isolated. The people comprising local businesses don’t connect with other businesses for fear of competition, not wanting to come off as “all business, all the time,” and a host of other reasons. The reason this is a detriment? Most innovations come from conversations! If a community is to truly bloom from economic gardening, it needs to boast a culture of communication and connection. A “business connection” shouldn’t just be someone that you meet for post-work drinks at the local watering hole; it should be someone you’ve met at an industry-related seminar at the local community college.

And speaking of “industry-related,” allow me to offer a teaser topic: industry clusters. Now that you understand economic gardening as a concept, it’s time to start thinking about how to bring its benefits to your community and your business. Start a small group discussion to delve into identifying and cultivating industry clusters and the second-stage growth companies that create industry foundations. Are you a second-stage growth company?

 

Looking forward to your success story,

Megan Tackett

 

Go back to The Write People.

Have an issue that you want addressed? Leave me a comment with your suggestion, and I’ll tackle it on my next blog entry!

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