Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Economic Gardening Gathering

This past weekend I was at my second out of the six Annual National Economic Gardening Gatherings that have been held. This year’s event was hosted by the Steamboat Springs, CO ED cooperative with participants from 20 states, Japan and Australia. The event has grown from 18 participants at the first event to almost 100 this year.

The concept of Economic Gardening (EG) originated with Chris Gibbons in Littleton, CO who 20 years ago decided that it make more sense to work with existing, fledgling and new businesses in the town rather than trying to compete with the 35,000 other ED organizations in the country to recruit in businesses. It is a strategy that has worked well in Littleton and the dozens of other communities that have embraced the idea.

There were a number of great presentations, several of which I’ll highlight in the next couple of days. Don Macke from RUPRI in NE highlighted successes in Ord, NE (population 4,500) because of the efforts of three local citizens. Wally Kearns and Steve Radley of NetWork Kansas have a very impressive three year old program that has connected with 1,800 entrepreneurs in rural areas. Burt Chojnowski highlighted the entrepreneurs of Fairfield, IA which has the distinction of having more jobs than population and where 33% of the population is self employed.

Noreen Moore, head of the EG in Steamboat Springs, talked about “location neutrals” who can run their business from anywhere in the world. She related to the group, “We’ve got about 700 of these location neutrals here and we think that they account for about 10% of our overall economy.” It’s a wonderful demographic that other towns would be well to try to recruit to your town, but I’ll warn you, its going to be tough unless you’ve got a ski mountain and “sense of place” like Steamboat.

The downside for a town like Steamboat Springs is the cost of housing. Noreen related, “Our average wage is around $40,000 per year but our average home costs over $600,000, which doesn’t compute. On the hill (ski mountain) the average cost is $1,100/sq. ft.”

Steamboat has gone from having 15 private planes based at the local airport fifteen years ago to over 250, another indication of the growth in location neutrals. Another take home from Steamboat was a “Local Product Store” which unfortunately because of time I didn’t get a chance to visit.

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