Bridging the Opportunity Divide

When a Town Struggles, Can Economic Gardening Be the Solution?

July 7, 2014
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When a Town Struggles, Can Economic Gardening Be the Solution?
By giving resources to small businesses, a theory holds that it can revitalize a community and make it less dependent on a single employer. Getty Images
What worked for Littleton, Colorado could be the answer for your community, too.

Turns out, Colorado is cultivating more than aspen trees and kick ass snowboarders.

For the past 25 years, the town of Littleton, Colorado has been using the concept of economic gardening to grow its businesses and economy with amazing results.

The idea came about in 1987 when missile-manufacturing company Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) pulled their business out of the Denver suburb, leaving 7,800 people without jobs and one million square feet of abandoned industrial and office space.

So Littleton’s business director, Chris Gibbons, decided to work with a Denver think tank, the Center for the New West, to implement this experimental theory developed by MIT economist David Burch.

Instead of being dependent upon just one major company, economic gardening involves identifying State-2 businesses — those that employ 10 to 100 people and have an annual revenue of $1 million or more — and giving them additional resources to expand.

Implemented in the late 1980s, 25 years of economic gardening turned a crippled Littleton into a booming town. The population increased by 25 percent, the number of available jobs tripled, and the city’s sale tax revenue increased from $6 million to $21 million.

Inspired by these results, Gibbons left Littleton to help start the National Center for Economic Gardening, which is sponsored by the Michigan-based Edward Lowe Foundation. Its mission: to spread the word and the tools to implement economic gardening in other cities and states. So far, it has established programs in multiple locals, including Kansas, Florida and Michigan, among others.

The newest state to join these economic gardeners is Maryland. Advance Maryland, as the program is called, began in 2013. So far, five businesses have been accepted at a cost to the state of $5,000 each.

Littleton’s success with economic gardening demonstrates that while unique, this business strategy is a viable and sustainable option. Perhaps, it is time for other cities and states to roll up their sleeves, put on their gardening gloves and grow their economy.

MORE: These Towns Show What Even Temporary Urban Renewal Can Bring

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