Yet another economic development idea – economic gardening

Hunting for tax base and jobs

If you followed the link in my last post to the full Strong Towns piece, you would have encountered a further link to Littleton, CO’s web page about economic gardening.   Gardening in this case does not (necessarily, anyway) have anything to do with growing crops, but is a metaphor to distinguish “economic gardening” from “economic hunting.”

If you are an economic hunter, you get your big guns of tax incentives, development fee rebates, and other subsidies and go hunting for companies to bag for your town.   You might take along your decoys and duck calls in the form of marketing videos and brochures to entice companies to bring their business close enough to shoot.   You probably spend a lot of time in the woods waiting, spending taxpayer money, hoping for big game to wander by.

If you are an economic gardener, on the other hand, you cultivate entrepreneurs to grow businesses.   Like growing crops, a community engaged in economic gardening looks for seeds which grow well in the local culture, provides resources to support their growth, and (in the long term) reaps the benefits of their success.

Littleton, CO states clearly what some Northfield critics have been fearing – “community development is economic development.” Consider the 3 areas in which Littleton’s city government has chosen to work to cultivate a fertile place for entrepreneurs:

  • Information: 3/4’s of the time is spent “providing tactical and strategic information.”  Indeed, Littleton’s Business and Industry Affairs department is a library of entrepreneurial resources and services.  Using research databases and other sources, they “develop marketing lists, competitive intelligence, industry trends, new product tracking, legislative research and to answer a number of other custom business questions.”  Real estate and construction are monitored, available land and vacant buildings cataloged, and training programs are developed specifically for Littleton and its business environment.  Information is also a big part of Northfield’s Comprehensive Economic Development Plan, although these recommendations have languished thus far in favor of the business park.  As well, I don’t see any evidence that the EDA or staff have considered research, information gathering, delivering strategic information to businesses or prospective businesses as a task in itself, rather smaller information related goals which are subsumed under other headings.  Our NEC does provide some of the informational services and it would be interesting to determine just how far that organization does go in this area (their website is generic and not entirely up to date).
  • Infrastructure: Littleton invests in infrastructure and “not just basic physical infrastructure but also quality of life infrastructure and intellectual infrastructure.”   Good physical infrastructure is basic government service, of course.  Quality of life infrastructure gets back to parks, trails, sidewalks, and libraries which make a community attractive to the entrepreneurs and the creative class who are going to be driving the economy.  Intellectual infrastructure, for Littleton,  has included developing courses and training materials related to business, management, entrepreneurship, etc. at in conjunction with local educational institutions (similar recommendations exist in our Economic Development Plan, incidentally).  Many of these activities are not EDA-type activities, but city efforts, of course.
  • Connections: Littleton works to connect its businesses with other businesses, trade organizations, think tanks and people who can help them grow.  I’d bet the ability to make these connections depends heavily on the information piece – knowing what’s out there and who to contact takes some research – as well as having someone with the networking skills to do the interpersonal work to make these things happen.

Approaches like economic gardening and the Ahwahnee Principles I blogged about earlier demand a different skill set (and a different mindset, of course) than we have seen around most of Northfield city government.  There is certainly a holistic, long-term vision and the ability to think creatively and critically.  Then there is the overt effort to be open, inclusive and collaborative rather than narrowly focused inside city hall.  Finally, the role of government shifts from administering discrete programs to connecting people and businesses with resources.   Planning efforts in Northfield are not too far away from some of this, but we have stumbled when trying to implement our plans.   So far, anyway.