The City of Littleton, CO has pioneered a different sort of economic development strategy for the past decade. Known as “economic gardening”, this strategy shifts the emphasis from “economic hunting”, i.e. recruiting companies to relocate, to helping a community’s existing businesses and entrepreneurs grow into healthy, vibrant companies with a strong employment base.
Historically, small businesses have accounted for about 75% of all job growth, plus half to two-thirds of the nation’s innovations and inventions. According to the NY Times, small businesses accounted for more than half of all private-sector jobs created last month. And of 150,000 new jobs, 91,000 of them were in businesses with fewer than 50 employees. (Large businesses, however, cut 4000 jobs in June.) And the SBA (U.S. Small Business Administration) has determined that companies with fewer than 20 employees created 85 percent of the new new jobs over the most recent 14 years of available census data (up to 2003).
Given facts like these, it simply makes sense to cultivate and nurture entrepreneurial activity and our existing businesses, rather than putting all our economic eggs into the recruitment basket. However, as Ross pointed out in an earlier post Northfield does not have a reputation for being “business-friendly”.
But why not? And what does that mean, anyway? (The most vocal sector of the “be more business-friendly” contingent usually uses the term as code for “developer-friendly”, which isn’t the same thing at all.)
According to consultant Edward Lowe, the three basic components of economic gardening are:
- Providing critical information needed by businesses to survive and thrive.
- Developing and cultivating an infrastructure that goes beyond basic physical infrastructure and includes quality of life, a culture that embraces growth and change, and access to intellectual resources, including qualified and talented employees
- Developing connections between businesses and the people and organizations that can help take them to the next level – business associations, universities, roundtable groups, service providers and more.
The City’s Economic Development Authority has defined its mission very narrowly, whereby its effectiveness and success is measured simply in terms of job creation and tax base. Admittedly these two things are crucial, and of course they’re the easiest to quantify. However, I believe that if Northfield wants to keep its existence as a cohesive and free-standing community, we need to look beyond that definition and think more broadly. It will help if we can shift our understanding to a more organic model, which acknowledges and appreciates the way each part (colleges, businesses, entrepreneurs) contributes to the whole (making Northfield a safe and satisfying place to live, work, and play).
Different business types obviously have different needs. For example, our “Mom and Pops” (our independent retailers and restauranteurs and service businesses, particularly the ones downtown) are usually underappreciated, and often struggling. No, they don’t contribute much in terms of job growth or commercial tax base. However, these businesses are hugely significant in providing a distinctive flavor and “sense of place” to our community. Their very existence contributes directly to our quality of life and our community identity. We can’t justify expenditures of City resources to a particular downtown business, but perhaps there’s a way to implement programs that will benefit them collectively. The least we can do is try to smooth their regulatory path a bit and make the process of expansion and renovation easier.
There’s also sort of an entrepreneurial corollary to these Mom and Pops – what I’ve heard termed the “lone eagle” businesses, generally an individual providing expertise to other businesses by consulting services. These are often extremely well-respected experts in their various fields. I don’t see a clear way to directly support businesses like these, but perhaps they could also benefit from being recognized as a vital part of Northfield’s community identity. Any organization that took on the task of interviewing these eagles, and helping to publicize their skills and accomplishments, would benefit both the businesses and the reputation of Northfield vis-a-vis creativity and a business-friendly place to live.
Another of our varieties is the entrepreneurial operation, usually 5-20 employees, which are often second-stage businesses. Most of them are too busy doing their core business and morphing through various growth stages to notice or care that Northfield isn’t as supportive as it could be. This segment provides the greatest opportunity to benefit from the economic gardening approach (for both themselves and the community); we have to remember that these second-stage businesses were once entrepreneurial startups, so we need to feed those as well.
The larger businesses in Northfield could benefit from any program that focuses on their workforce, whether it’s workforce housing, additional opportunities for education, etc.
Besides the City, there are three other major players tasked with supporting the business community: The Northfield Enterprise Center, the Northfield Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation. Referring back to Lowe’s components of economic gardening, it’s clear to me that all these organizations have consistently missed #3, so there’s definitely an opportunity there.
Barbara Gentling, the owner of Care Tenders, shared her less than stellar experience in building her new facility in comment #38 of Ross’s post, which provides some excellent information about what not to do, and ways the City might improve its processes to facilitate growing more businesses like Care-Tenders.
I know we have a lot of readers with first-hand knowledge of a local business. What do you see as the greatest need? Or more specifically, what programs or services would most significantly or most immediately benefit your business? Getting that information out there will help the City and the other business-support organizations further clarify their respective missions, and prioritize their work plans. Both the Chamber and the EDA do on-site visits to local area businesses, but there’s no way they can cover all of them, and in my experience some of the best and brightest, or most interesting, are almost invisible because they’re not focused on the local market. I’d like to solicit some input from business owners and entrepreneurs (beyond “the usual suspects”), and it would be even more valuable if the comments were both specific, and first-hand.
Who wants to go next? I’m willing to share my own experiences in this arena, but I doubt Northfield can do much about the decline of the dollar against the Indian rupee, which is the biggest obstacle my business is facing right now. Other people could probably be much more helpful.