Greener Grass at Home: Strategies for Economic Gardening

Greener Grass at Home: Strategies for Economic Gardening Main Photo

1 Jul 2024


What is Economic Gardening?

Economic Gardening is a unique entrepreneurial approach to economic development that focuses on nurturing and supporting second-stage companies and local businesses within a community rather than attracting new business from outside. The approach seeks to provide support for existing enterprises within a region to facilitate a sort of “trickle outward” effect, bolstering the rest of the community through job creation and added wealth. This innovative strategy has gained traction in recent years as an alternative to traditional economic development practices, which often focus on attracting new businesses to an area. Below, let’s delve into economic gardening, its origins, usage, and the tools and techniques for effective application.

Origins of Economic Gardening

The concept of economic gardening was first introduced in the late 1980s by Chris Gibbons and Sean Campbell in Littleton, Colorado. Faced with a significant economic downturn due to the loss of major employers, the city decided to shift its focus from attracting outside businesses to nurturing local ones. The idea stemmed from research demonstrating how supporting existing local businesses – particularly small to medium-sized enterprises – could lead to sustainable economic growth and job creation. The strategy was successful. Following the implementation of economic gardening methods in Littleton, the city’s job base doubled from 15,000 to 30,000 over two decades. Simultaneously, sales tax revenue in the region increased significantly from $6 million to $20 million, indicating a strong boost in economic activity within the community.

Littleton’s success highlights the effectiveness of economic gardening in fostering organic growth and prosperity. Since then, numerous communities across the United States have adopted economic gardening with promising results. Instead of focusing solely on attracting large corporations or offering incentives for relocation, economic gardening emphasizes the importance of cultivating homegrown businesses and local talent.

The Grass is Always Greener Where You Water It

Economic gardening differs from traditional economic development strategies in several key aspects- particularly concerning approach and outcomes. As indicated by its name, the practice seeks to “water” the existing assets rather than focusing on attracting the shiny and new.  Traditional approaches often focus primarily on recruiting external businesses through incentives, tax breaks, infrastructure investments, and subsidies. While these approaches can yield benefits, they may not fully leverage the potential of existing local businesses. Economic gardening, on the other hand, recognizes the value of existing homegrown enterprises and prioritizes the support, growth, and expansion of local enterprises.

Applying the “Gardening Toolbox”

Just like a gardener needs pruning shears, a trowel, and a shovel to cultivate their garden, economic developers need a toolkit of specialized tools and activities to assist in the growth of local companies. Economic gardening tools include the provision of resources, infrastructure, and information to help local businesses expand and thrive. These may encompass providing businesses with access to, and training on, sophisticated corporate tools and research databases to inform their strategic decision-making, uncover insights and opportunities for growth, and help them gain an edge over competitors. These resources may look like data analytics tools, business intelligence, geographic information systems (GIS), search engine optimization tools, social media and research tools, and network mapping. Additionally, businesses should receive training on strategic planning, business modeling, and scenario analysis to chart their growth trajectory and maximize their online presence through effective digital marketing strategies. Economic developers must also facilitate access to capital and funding resources, by connecting local businesses with potential investors, lenders, and alternative funding sources, along with offering guidance on preparing funding proposals, business plans, and pitch decks.

Is Economic Gardening the Right Approach for Your Community?

To apply economic gardening effectively, community leaders and stakeholders must engage local businesses, foster partnerships, and establish a dedicated steering committee. Identifying target business partners to collaborate with, pinpointing key community assets, developing a service delivery approach, and committing to ongoing communication and guidance are key components of a successful economic gardening program. Key officials, partners, and supporters in both the public and private sectors need to be engaged and committed to the economic gardening approach for it to be effective.

Economic gardening’s community-centric approach should be considered as part of a holistic strategy. It’s a long-term strategy that requires patience and commitment, making it best for communities willing to invest time and resources for sustainable growth. By nurturing homegrown enterprises, providing essential resources, and fostering a supportive ecosystem, economic gardening has the potential to drive sustainable economic growth, create jobs from within, and enhance the overall prosperity of communities.

About The Author

Meredith Benoit's Profile Photo

Meredith Benoit

Copy Editor

Department: Content

Meredith Benoit joined Golden Shovel Agency in December 2023. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Communications, with a Minor in French from Chestnut Hill College. With experience writing and editing for Baltimore Style and Chesapeake Life Magazines, Meredith now reviews and edits marketing content for economic development organizations. She enjoys learning about different communities and cultures through her work. Based in Severna Park, MD, Meredith loves spending time with her family, especially her nine-year-old daughter. She also enjoys exercising, traveling, cooking, and exploring new restaurants.