In 1987, Chris Gibbons was charged with revitalizing a Littleton economy that just saw it's largest employer, construction aggregate supplier Martin Marietta, lay off about 7,000 employees amid a recession.
And despite long odds, his Economic Gardening program was such a success that even Harvard has noticed.
How so? Thanks to the way it's increased Littleton's job base and tax revenue, Economic Gardening is one of six finalists for Harvard's Innovations in American Government Award, which recognizes excellence in the public sector for solving government problems.
When Gibbons first started working for the City of Littleton as director of the Business/Industry Affairs (BIA) office, cities typically tried to create jobs by attracting large companies to set up shop there, frequently by offering incentives such as tax breaks and subsidies. But it doesn't always work.
"The idea of trying to get a business to move to your state is conventional wisdom, and the problem is that conventional wisdom sometimes isn't so wise," says Jay Rosengard, Director of the Financial Sector Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and one of the evaluators of the finalists.
So rather than take a long shot and beg companies to relocate to Littleton, Gibbons decided to grow the companies already there, despite the relatively few seedlings growing at the time. In 1987, Littleton had nearly a million square feet of vacant retail space and downtown vacancies were approaching 30 percent.
"That's when I started thinking, 'Why couldn't you just grow your own company if you were really good at something and had specialties that couldn't be matched by other people?'" Gibbons recalls.
Many cities and states have since adopted a form of Economic Gardening since then. But when Gibbons and his staff first started, there was no model to follow.
"The council actually told us to go work with Littleton businesses and create jobs," he says. "That's about the only direction they gave us, but I had been thinking about it for five years at that point."
Initially, Gibbons's team struggled to find the right kind of companies to put their efforts behind. Large firms weren't expanding, and therefore not creating many jobs. And small mom and pop businesses were too modest in size to justify the resources. So, after five or six years, BIA focused on helping emerging growth Stage II businesses, defined as those with ten to 100 employees.
"They've gotten beyond that ten employee stage and we bring a lot of high-end capabilities to help them grow," says Gibbons. "We do market research, competitor intelligence, industry trend work, search engine optimization and Graphic Information System mapping, and a lot of tools that big companies have. If you're a company of 5,000 to 10,000 people, you probably have that stuff in-house. But if you're a company of twenty, thirty people, you're doing good just to make and sell and get it out the door. You don't have the excess people to go and do that sophisticated stuff, and that's what we do for them."
The BIA office is funded by taxpayer dollars, which is another reason Gibbons wanted to invest in local businesses. Pre-Economic Gardening, Gibbons says those taxes likely would have been used as an incentive to entice another company to come to town.
"And that company, maybe they end up competing with a person we tax," says Gibbons. "Maybe they take their (competitor's) labor force. But at the very least, they've gotten your tax money. What we've said is, 'We're still going to tax you, but what we'll do is pile it into these high-end services and people, and turn around and help you.'"
And help they did. BIA reports that since the beginning of the Economic Gardening program, Littleton's job base has increased from 15,000 to 27,000, and sales tax revenue has more than tripled, from $6 million to $20 million. The Small Business Association wrote a report on the program and cited statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor showing that between 1990 and 2005, the number of net new jobs in Littleton grew 136 percent, as opposed to 64 percent in the Denver Metro Area, 47 percent in the State of Colorado and 21 percent nationally.
"It's quite remarkable, and I think the population only went up 23 percent, so it's not just like a lot of people came to Littleton," Rosengard says. "The other thing to keep in mind is that Littleton has come from being a net exporter of jobs to an importer, meaning they have more jobs than people. You don't have to be an economist to recognize that."
Finalists for the Innovations in American Government award are judged on novelty, effectiveness, significance, and transferability. The last criteria is proven by the number and geography of the locations that have adopted a form of Economic Gardening. Places as large as Florida and as far-flung as the North Down Borrough of Northern Ireland are investing resources in local companies to improve their economies.
Starting at 10:25 a.m., Littleton Mayor Doug Clark and Jim Woods, Director of Facility Operations of Littleton Public Schools, will be presenting their case to the selection committee. The presentation can be viewed online, although the page will appear dead until 10 a.m. local time. The presentations will also be available on YouTube in a few weeks.
As a finalist, BIA will earn at least $10,000 -- but if it wins the award the group will come home with $100,000. The four staffers can't simply make it rain with that money; the funds must be put toward replication efforts.
Based solely on size, Littleton's program will play the role of underdog as it goes up against others from New York City, Oregon, San Francisco and Boston. But for Gibbons, the achievements of Economic Gardening are reward enough.
"The future of our community and the future of the country, we think, is in those emerging growth companies," he says. "That's the innovative companies and that's where the good-paying jobs are going to be created. We've been excited about that for a long time and we've become more excited as the Great Recession has worn on."
More from our Business archive: "Billions Behind Bars: Colorado's prison industry gets its closeup in CNBC special (VIDEO)."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.