Counties embrace 'economic gardening' for local growth

September 28, 2009
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LANSING — With Michigan’s economy in despair and jobs hard to come by, smaller communities are looking to existing businesses to weather the economic storm.

A process known as “economic gardening” is being used to further that goal in low-population counties like Gladwin, Osceola and Huron.

Rather than trying to lure big businesses and retail outlets to boost employment and increase property values, these counties are focusing on companies already within their areas and seeking ways to make them more attractive to the public.

“The chamber of commerce supports shopping locally,” said Tom Tucholski, executive director of Gladwin Chamber of Commerce.

“Shopping local keeps the money in the community, to the benefit of the business community. The business community can then give back more to the community that supports them, to the benefit of all the people,” he said.

Such a plan is easier said than done, but sometimes cities have to start small. To achieve positive economic growth, communities must understand the basics, a local official explained.

“To increase jobs, we have to increase production,” said Frank Starkweather, the director of Gladwin County’s Economic Development Corp. “We’re working with small businesses to hire more people. In order for businesses to become more productive, they have to increase sales and they need to find new markets for the firms.

“We’re focusing on companies already here,” he said.

Gladwin City Manager Bob Moffit said such businesses include shoe stores and clothing outlets.

The economic gardening philosophy is meant to spur commerce on many levels, from retailing and service to more complex industries like manufacturing.

Focusing on small businesses already in the area allows counties to concentrate on future possibilities. Rather than worry about the possibly expensive prospects of encouraging businesses from other areas to relocate and start anew, economic gardening promotes growth from within.

Saginaw Valley State University is helping Gladwin, Osceola and Huron county agencies develop with the economic gardening goal in mind.

Gladwin has received more than $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for physical improvements.

“These are three counties with the intent and capacity to grow,” Starkweather said.

“We are looking for companies with bold futures and contracts with research companies with exclusive, expensive databases. We want them to buy products from our companies. If the program is a success, more counties with more money will participate,” he said.

Moffit said it can be difficult to compete with large “big box” businesses that offer more products at lower prices, but small businesses offer their own advantages, such as providing incentives for people to stay in the area.

Tucholski said, “To keep consumers shopping locally, businesses can employ a number of strategies. Innovative marketing will let consumers know a local option exists for a product. Top-notch customer service will bring back a consumer every time.

“Businesses also have two strong allies: the saving of gas and the saving of time.”

Moffit, a former economics professor at Saginaw Valley, says a myriad of things must happen for a community to get back on track and see positive economic growth.

“Most of the work is being done in Washington, D.C.,” said Moffit. “We are working with consultants on our willingness to grow. We want to put manufacturers in a position to expand and grow. We are still looking to get $25,000 from Lansing.”

James Hallan, president of the Michigan Retailers Association, said, “It’s no easy solution. Smaller communities have to find their niche, find the core of that niche and build around it.”

The economic gardening program began in August, and will to end in July 2010.

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