Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Midwest Wake-up Call

One of the best list serve emails is one put out by Chris Gibbons of Littleton, CO. Chris was the originator and implementer of the idea of Economic Gardening, developing local entrepreneurs. He has great success in Littleton, I’ve attended one of his annual gatherings and followed the success of others in the field.

Chris was recently in Illinois and wrote the following profound piece about his observations. In particular, his advice on the “creation of the pie” vs. “how to divide the pie” is a wake-up call.

I had the opportunity to meet with folks at the Illinois Rural Economic Development conference last week. There were 300 some people from small communities all over the state. Like much of the Midwest, Illinois has been losing manufacturing jobs to overseas countries for a number of years and the pool of new plant expansions to chase is drying up

It’s just an offhand observation of mine, but it seems to me that the entrepreneurial spirit through the Manufacturing Belt has withered. Every time I am in the Midwest, I am always struck by the lack of conversation and even more important, the lack of infrastructure for entrepreneurial activity. My own home state of Colorado is relatively small in population (25th in the nation) and Denver has often been called the Capital of the Empty Quarter…..but we consistently rank high in entrepreneurial activity, venture capital, tech jobs and similar categories. I just never get that feel of energy and ideas and possibilities when I am in the Midwest.

In some respects, I think our friends may be suffering from their own success. Many of the great 19th and 20th century companies like John Deere, Kellogg and General Mills, Ford and GM, Quaker Oats, McCormick Harvester and Caterpillar (which has its corporate headquarters in Peoria where we met) were founded in the Midwest. All that burst of entrepreneurial activity created hundreds of thousands of jobs… but somewhere along the line the focus shifted from “creation of the pie” to fighting over “how the pie is going to be divided.”

It seems to me that a great proportion of the population quit worrying about wealth creation and instead engaged in management/union disputes over how the wealth was going to be distributed. The idea that wealth creation should be broadly distributed through the population seems to have dwindled away… and so as manufacturing plants relocate to other parts of the world, the local communities feel lost and betrayed and hopeless.

The good news is that University of Illinois Extension and Western Illinois University have taken the lead to rekindle the entrepreneurial spirit. This is not an easy road to travel however. The hardest part is changing mind-set on how a community is going to save itself. I’ve often thought that the analogy for these communities is the Alamo. That is, we have to come to terms with the cold fact that no one is coming to save us. If we are going to survive, we are going to have to save ourselves.

“Ourselves alone,” as the Irish say.

It is a scary proposition to think that it will be “ourselves alone” after a century of depending upon a large corporation. Not only does the basic mind-set have to change but a whole new set of tools and concepts have to be learned before they can even be put to use. If the budget is allocated to brochure development and cold-calling travel and subsidies, it takes great faith to let loose of a known and leap toward an unknown.

But in Illinois and Iowa and Michigan and Indiana and Wisconsin and Minnesota I see the first shoots of a new spring coming back. At the state level, at the university level, at the local level there are a number of efforts under way to encourage entrepreneurial activity. We will know it has changed when the billboards coming into town change from “Please relocate your business here” to “Our hometown…full of vibrant, growing businesses.”

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