In 1987, the City of Littleton, Colorado, experienced a major recession due to an "oil bust" and the downsizing of the city’s major defense employer, Martin Marietta. In total, over 7,000 employees were laid off. In addition, the town had large numbers of commercial and retail vacancies and the city council knew it had to dramatically change the city's policy regarding economic development. The council ended its practice of recruiting industries and allowing out-of-state employers to dictate the economic future of the city. As a result, it created a new Department of Business/Industry Affairs (B/IA) with the charge to "work with local businesses to create good jobs."
The director of the new department and the deputy city manager approached a nascent think tank — "Center for the New West" — to develop a novel approach. Based on the idea that communities should get out of the industrial recruiting business and "stick to their knitting…build on what they were good at doing," a plan was developed to quit "economic hunting” and start “economic gardening” by developing and growing local businesses.
Based on new business theories and models, the B/IA team developed a series of corporate tools including geographic information systems, database research, search engine optimization, social media, systems thinking, and temperament and network theory to assist local business development.
The team also determined that Stage II companies (10-99 employees, under $50 million in sales) are responsible for a disproportionately high amount of job creation. As a result, Littleton's economic development effort expanded its focus from the three traditional areas of recruiting, business assistance, and the workforce to include the support of entrepreneurial growth companies. The entrepreneurial approach to economic development is a fairly common subject in economic development today; however the concept was new in 1987 when it was formulated in Littleton.
Entrepreneurs in Littleton have doubled the job base from 15,000 to 30,000 since 1987. Sales taxes to the city have tripled from $6 to $20 million while the population grew only 23 percent. The project has been through three major recessions and reauthorized by 12 city councils.
Over 700 communities have made inquiries into the program and many have since established economic gardening programs, including projects in Northern Ireland, Australia, Canada, and other U.S. states.
Mr. Michael Penn
2255 West Berry Avenue
Littleton, CO 80165
Phone: (303) 795-3720