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What the heck is Economic Gardening? -- by John Caruso

In 1987, the City of Littleton, Colorado was reeling from the loss of thousands of jobs as the state was experiencing a severe recession, and its major employer, defence contractor Martin Marietta, had closed its manufacturing facilities.

In 1987, the City of Littleton, Colorado was reeling from the loss of thousands of jobs as the state was experiencing a severe recession, and its major employer, defence contractor Martin Marietta, had closed its manufacturing facilities. The community, which is dependent on sales taxes for its major source of municipal revenue, had over 1 million square feet of vacant retail space, with downtown vacancies approaching 30 per cent.

Chris Gibbons, the newly hired director of economic development, understood that city council was frustrated with having their local economy controlled by out-of-state corporations and directed staff "to work with local businesses to develop good jobs." This direction marked the beginning of Littleton’s experiment with "Economic Gardening."

I know, at first glance, it sounds like an old hippie back-to-the-land movement, but it is nothing of the sort. Economic gardening is a sophisticated system of information gathering and analysis, using advanced computer software to identify market opportunities for local manufacturers. It provides small and medium-sized firms with access to data that would not normally be available to them regarding demographics, income, competition, and emerging market demand. The cost to develop this technology and the staff that are able to optimize it is not feasible for small firms.

Under the leadership of Chris Gibbons, the tools and expertise required to launch and deliver this service were developed over a period of two years. The service was launched with the simple concept that small and medium-sized local companies were the source of jobs and wealth, and that the job of economic developers should be to create nurturing environments for these companies to grow.

I first learned about economic gardening while attending university classes in 2008. I was intrigued by the success of the Littleton experience, as local enterprises had grown and created new jobs exceeding all of those lost during the recession and closure of the Martin Marietta manufacturing operations.

The City of Greater Sudbury, with funding from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, responded to the loss of jobs at Xstrata Nickel and Vale by establishing a Community Adjustment Committee. The mandate of the committee was to identify actions that could mitigate the impact of layoffs in the mining sector. As the committee's vice-chair, I introduced the concept of economic gardening to the committee chair, Madame Gisèle Chretien. With her support, I spoke with Chris Gibbons, and he supplied me with additional background information and a video presentation; the concept was then presented to the Community Adjustment Committee for their support. The committee immediately saw the potential of this development strategy and agreed to adopt it as a committee project.

We brought Mr. Gibbons to Sudbury in March of this year and invited local business owners to attend his presentation. Approximately 40 business owners attended and expressed a strong desire to learn more. Chris then spent the afternoon with staff from the Greater Sudbury Development Corporation (GSDC), providing more details on the human and financial resources required to implement such a program. Economic gardening is currently being introduced to the whole state of Florida; San Bernardino, California; Santa Fe; the state of Wyoming; and the North Down Borough of northern Ireland, to name a few. Greater Sudbury was the first community in Canada to contact Mr. Gibbons to seek information about this development tool.

At the conclusion of the Adjustment Committee's mandate, the staff of the GSDC presented the concept to their board of directors and sought their support to launch a pilot project, with assistance from the Economic Gardening Jump Start team in Littleton. Six local companies were invited and agreed to participate. This pilot project is nearing completion, with results scheduled for presentation to the GSDC board in the near future. I recently learned that the Sudbury experiment has generated interest from economic development departments across Ontario.

I want to praise the GSDC for embracing this idea and for having the willingness to support this pilot project. Much has been written about the strength and depth of our mining supply and service sector, but there are many other firms in Greater Sudbury and indeed in Northern Ontario that could benefit from access to the strategic business information provided by the delivery of an economic gardening program. The GSDC will need the support of its board and additional resources from city council to effectively launch and deliver this service to our business community. Senior governments, with a mandate to support economic development in Northern Ontario, should support the GSDC and consider this strategy for a pan-Northern initiative.

Existing small and medium-sized businesses in Northern Ontario create jobs and deserve this kind of nurturing so that they can expand markets nationally and globally. Let’s get going now!


John Caruso, president, The Northern Consulting Group