I was once a technician in an animal and tissue culture lab. We were developing analytic devices for use in diagnosing patients. It was good applied science that probably saved a lot of lives but it was not without it’s grey areas. One of the more onerous duties in such a lab is exsanguination. This is a procedure in which the blood is slowly drained from a live rabbit in a process that is so slow and pain free that the rabbit hardly notices even as the lights fade from it’s big pink eyes. Not a pretty sight and a form of laboratory vampirism that is unsettling even if you’re not a PETA activist.
Exsanguination is not pleasant even if it is for good ends but in rural development it is a process that kills towns by drips and drabs with no offsetting benefits. Exsanguination by depopulation appears to be the destiny of many small American communities across rural America. The life blood of most small towns is in the interactions within an extended family of children, siblings, nephews, cousins, in-laws and occasional new comers which animates the social and economic activity of a community. The vitality of a rural community is in this finely woven network of relationships that encompass both the past and the future of hundreds or thousands of people. It is this life blood that drains slowly from the heart of a town as generations leave and don’t return.
The symptom that usually grabs the attention of community development professionals is unemployment among those who remain in the community. It is a malady that has been front and center for rural community developers for over a generation. The standard prescription is to do what is necessary to add more jobs to the local economy. Bringing more corporate or public facilities to town is usually at the top of the list when we need to boost our flagging civic health.
How do we snare a chain store or restaurant?
Can we use our location and or transport advantages to entice a large corporation to set up a distribution center or even very rarely a manufacturing operation?
Can we get the state to put in an DOT facility or even a high security prison?
Or we could go all out and try to reel in a big box operation like Wal-Mart. Businesses with a strong national brand recognition will draw from a larger market and bring more people into town to spend their money. Each of these options can bring money and jobs to town. Each, however; has major costs both in funds and community focus to bring about. The potential for unintended consequence that may make winning the prize a losing proposition is frequently part of the outcome.
The jobs don’t often show up unaccompanied. Both industrial and retail operations will often bring their own management with lower paying jobs going to the locals. Of course, in a crunch even lower paying jobs can look good. If the managers bring something to the jobs, they may still fail to bring anything to the community because they’re just passing through.
Other consequences may be significantly more difficult to put a monetary price tag on. Ownership of a small local business is a dignified occupation which some find more attractive even in a marginal business than being a greeter at a big box store. These are the same people who turnout for the civic organizations like Rotary, Kiwanis and Lions and knit together the towns charitable and business networking interests. Locally run businesses are more likely to provide opportunities for succeeding generations so the displacement of existing businesses rooted in the local culture may diminish the town’s character and attraction for the young in the future. The very jobs that are gained may not be those that would help retain someone with initiative and drive.
After totaling up the pro’s and con’s, the net effect may be positive so this is not a strategy to be disparaged unless we fail to do the calculations in advance.
National brands are not necessarily the spawn of Satan nor are they the answer to all our needs as a community. Being a successful, thriving business is not inherently a bad thing. They exist because someone has a business model that works well. They have developed a brand and products and work style that can be replicated over and over again with success. These businesses must answer some demand in the towns they set up in or they will go under. If the competition they bring pushes existing business to adapt and respond effectively it can make the city stronger. The not so great consequence is that the community may start looking more and more like any of 10,000 other little commercial intersections across the country. When there is no difference between your town and thousands of others, the network of social, cultural and family roots that bind the next generation to those that came before begin to shrivel.
Large manufacturers and distributors are economic entities driven to seek low operating costs, tax incentives and marketing advantage with the aim of optimizing return. To operate efficiently either nationally or internationally it is often in their interest to locate manufacturing and storage facilities in strategic regional locations. Incentives may tilt the preference but the corporate decision is going to correlate most strongly with labor, operating and transportation economies available in the selected town. Often several small towns in a region may offer essentially the same operating advantages to the corporation and a set of incentives that are also nearly identical. The toolbox of business inducements are controlled by state and federal policies so for towns of similar size their financial inducement will tend to cancel one another and raise the bar without increasing their attraction. The corporation being pursued by multiple suitors is indifferent as to which it ends up in. In the end, a city can pay a corporation to set up for a while but can retain them only as long as the larger strategic reasons for being in the region exist. The attention of a national corporation can be “rented” but it can’t be bought with the kind of incentives available to a small town.
Is there an alternative way to develop economically without having to depend entirely on national brand clones? Can we grow without bribing large corporations to settle in the community just for as long as the economic incentives are in play and then leave for a sweeter deal elsewhere? Can we stop the bleeding? Can we staunch the steady flow of bright, ambitious young people from out town to outside opportunities?
Economic or entrepreneurial gardening may be a way to recapture the vitality, creativity and civic activism that brought our towns into being in the first place. Economic gardening is NOT a program for forming food coops or sharing community garden space. Economic gardening is a an economic development idea pioneered by the City of Littleton, Colorado starting in 1989. The approach has since been adopted by many small cities, the State of Wyoming and the State of Florida. Littleton with a population of 40,000 has added 15,000 jobs to it’s economy since the start of the program and at a much lower cost than recruiting national businesses with incentives and concessions.
Economic gardening is based upon the idea that entrepreneurs drive economies. This model does not turn on large multi-national corporations. They are a different animal and have little to offer a small city. Country mice should not cohabitate with big city tigers. The entrepreneurs we want are the small one to fifty person operations that generate new jobs locally and engage in grass roots services and production that is linked to the community. Municipalities will focus more on lowering barriers to start-ups and avoid attempting to micro-manage the process. Some cities offer central marketing databases along with basic business office skills. Several foundations exist to promote, resource and fund programs sharing this philosophy of economic development. The Kauffman and Edward Lowe Foundations are among them, offering both grants and know-how. They both have great web pages with lots of free resources.
Economic gardening comes down to the idea that business begins at home. Each community must evolve its own locally derived way of implementing the program but it should include three major objectives.
- Sustain the businesses you have.
- Attract or grow new entrepreneurs.
- Foster an innovation lifestyle.
Every salesman knows it is a lot more expensive to get a new customer than to keep the ones you have. Your best potential future customer is the last guy who just bought something from you. The business owners who have already committed their time and capital already, are the most likely to be the source of the next new job in town. If civic money and energy are to be expended to encourage expansion and start-ups, begin by helping the home team. Seek out the participation and advice of business owners with a long-term stake in the town. Listen carefully to the owners who have been in town for many years because they have roots and branches that can be grafted or revitalized and turned into new enterprises. Then turn to the newest owners in town because they choose your town for reasons that might be taken for granted by a long time resident. No one uproots their family and plants a business in new soil unless they see something special in your locality.
Entrepreneurs are attracted by opportunity, life style and other entrepreneurs. New entrepreneurs from outside the town add immediate dollar flow to the economy simply by moving to town. They also increase the likelihood that other innovative individuals will be attracted to town by bringing their network of contacts with them. Business entrepreneurs have more in common with artists than either may readily appreciate. They take assets that may have little apparent value, rearrange them into something surprising and suddenly there is more wealth in the world than existed previously. They also like to exchange ideas and build relationships with others who can share their innovative vision and passion. The artist ends up chatting across a steaming espresso with others who share her vision and often are attracted to artistic enclaves. Entrepreneurs will do much the same when they’re not busy growing their business and gravitate to towns where they find kindred souls.
The cheapest and most productive strategy over the decades is to grow your own entrepreneurial seedlings starting in primary school.
The single most serious problem in modern rural towns is that children grow up and move away. There are either no jobs or the jobs that exist are dead-end positions that will not allow them to achieve a level of success comparable to their parents. When they are gone they aren’t likely to move back and because they are gone we do not focus on them in trying to solve our problem. The blood drains out and we don’t even notice.
The first pool of potential new entrepreneurs is those locals who went away to college and never returned but still have roots in the community. The next is those who haven’t left yet but are going to unless something local that matches their ability emerges. Caste a wide net for this group because initiative and creativity don’t require a college degree. Plumbers, electricians, bakers, merchants, artisans and life insurance salesmen with practical on the job educations can be entrepreneurs just a well or better than new age techies. If the kids who launch ventures stay, many of their less entrepreneurial friends will stay to work in those businesses.
Location as an objection to a rural location has diminished in the age of global online economies. Many modern businesses – even in towns that appear a little rustic – derive significant sales from the web so they are bound to a location more by the quality of life that it provides than by its local sales potential. A rural American town is a safe, healthy place to live and raise a family, may have it’s own university or college, arts centers and many other amenities that make it a nice place to live. One emerging demographic that could be transplanted to rural towns are baby boomers who’ve either retired gracefully or been forced out of the job market by ageism. This is a group that could hit the ground running with still viable skills sets and in some cases a little capital. Once the links to high paying employment are cut a small town with its lower cost of living might look good compared to urban sprawl.
Rural Americans in small town have a heritage of creating their own employment and adapting to changing circumstances by pursuing different trades or business ventures. Restoring that tradition by preparing school children for a world in which they are likely to do better working for themselves in their home town than for a phone store in the big city.
What distinguishes cities with a bright future from those that are shrouded in perpetual gloom is that current business owners are not fleeing and aspiring businesses owners are flocking in to be part of an unfolding vision. Real growth is not fueled nearly as much by the expensive process of attracting a few big businesses as by the creation of a climate of innovation and opportunity that attracts hundreds of entrepreneurs to open small businesses with growth potential. All of those businesses will contribute to the local economy and some may be the next Starbucks or Microsoft or even the post-big-box successor to Wal-Mart. Sam Walton started with a $20,000 loan in Newport and twenty years later, Arkansas. We want to be Newport.
Creating a city with a future is not an easy task but it is one that has been accomplished by every town. Macomb, where I live, started with one cabin at an intersection on the Western Frontier that was Illinois in 1830. The cabin was owned by a newly appointed County Clerk who held three other county offices simultaneously and in his spare time opened a trading post. Soon a handful of enterprising pioneers showed up and the intersection became a town 4 years later. Twenty year later it had grown in to enough of a city that Lincoln twice made it a stop in his pursuit of a Senate seat. Early pioneers had to be entrepreneurs if they wanted more than a cabin in the woods. Multi-tasking, rapid sequential-tasking and just plain doing what needs doing are not new ideas in small town America but they are still the requisites of success.
In entrepreneurial gardening the best strategy is to clear the field and plant seeds. Clear the stumps of antiquated laws and regulations. Try to remember that the farmer doesn’t tell the seed how to grow. He provides good ground in which to grow, some nurture and may do a little weeding. Then he waits for the blossoms.