County beings an economic garden

Anoka County is getting into the gardening business.

But this is not about planting and tending to flowers and shrubs.

Rather, the Anoka County Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) has entered into a $150,000 contract with the Edward Lowe Foundation for what is called an economic gardening project.

Its purpose is to help small and mid-sized businesses grow without leaving the county, according to Karen Skepper, county community and economic development coordinator.

The Edward Lowe Foundation has spearheaded successful economic gardening efforts around the country.

Littleton, Colo., pioneered the concept in 1989 following a major plant closure.

According to Coon Rapids City Manager Matt Fulton, Littleton shifted its economic development strategy from business attraction to retention and expansion with special focus on meeting the needs of second stage companies.

“The concept is to target second stage companies who have successfully established themselves but are now experiencing the inevitable growing pains which slow down the company’s rate of growth and expansion,” Fulton said.

“Economic gardening works to provide resources to such companies so they can continue on their growth trajectory.”

Coon Rapids hosted a meeting in late March involving Coon Rapids Mayor Tim Howe, Anoka County Board Chairperson Rhonda Sivarajah and city and county staffs along with a consultant with the Edward Lowe Foundation and Hennepin County staff.

Hennepin County launched a pilot economic gardening program last year. The economic gardening concept has also been implemented in Carver County.

Following that meeting Sivarajah directed that Anoka County begin the process of putting an economic gardening project in place.

Sivarajah is enthusiastic about the program. “I think so many times, the economic development focus is on bringing new companies into the area and while that’s very positive, it’s only a small piece of the puzzle,” she said.

Economic gardening is all about bringing growth to companies and local entrepreneurs already in the community, according to Sivarajah.

This program provides the tools and technical assistance so that these small businesses can grow and prosper, Sivarajah said.

Economic gardening gives these businesses access to some of the tools that Fortune 500 companies are able to enjoy by bringing in experts and making important connections, she said.

The focus tends on big companies, but it is the smaller companies that create jobs in the community, Sivarajah said.

“This seems to be a creative opportunity to support local companies as they grow,” she said.

Before the HRA action at its meeting May 22, Skepper spoke with officials of the county’s municipalities and worked with the Edward Lowe Foundation.

She also made a presentation to the county’s local government officials quarterly meeting in late May.

With the county contract in place with the foundation, Skepper will be working with economic development directors of the county’s cities as well as chambers of commerce in the county to identify second stage companies that would benefit from the economic gardening project, she said.

According to Skepper, these companies must have between 10 and 99 employees and have revenues of at least $1 million each year.

“We are looking at companies who have been in business for at least five years and have been very successful for two years,” Skepper said.

But she said the county will be flexible if it finds a company that has been operating for only three years that might be right for the program.

“The number one indicator is a chief executive officer who is very engaged and driving everything forward,” Skepper said.

The plan is to identify 100 such second stage companies and invite representatives to Anoka County’s tent at the 3M Champions Tour golf championship at the TPC in Blaine on Friday, Aug. 3.

Representatives from the Edward Lowe Foundation will be present to conduct a large forum meeting.

But then the number of companies will be whittled down to 15, which is called a “pod,” for involvement in the economic gardening project, according to Skepper.

With representatives from Edward Lowe Foundation facilitating the meetings, the chief executive officers of those companies will meet four times over the course of the year in a round-table format and 10 times in small groups, Skepper said.

At these small group sessions, the CEOs will work with experts in such areas as the Internet, GIS, market research and human resources to come up with action plans to grow their businesses, she said.

“Over the year, the companies will implement the action plan designed to stimulate business growth,” Skepper said.

The HRA contract with the Edward Lowe Foundation is for one year, but other communities that have hired the foundation renew the agreement year after year, she said.

There is no cost to the companies that are part of the economic gardening project that first year, Skepper said.

But if they come back into the program in further years, then they will have to pay a fee, she said.

According to Skepper, economic gardening is particularly designed to help businesses that may have reached a stumbling block in their growth efforts and need support to overcome the problem, she said.

For example, in the Hennepin County program, there was a chief executive officer (CEO) whose business was suffering because he could not find a local supplier for a product he needed and had to go overseas, Skepper said.

When the CEO explained his problem at one of the round-table sessions, the CEO of another company said he knew of a supplier that could help, the issue was solved and the business was able to grow, she said.

According to Skepper, how the HRA contract with the foundation will be paid for has not yet been firmed up.

Not all the cities in the county are members of the county HRA because they have their own housing and redevelopment authorities, while many of the companies chosen for the economic gardening project will likely be located in those communities, Skepper said.

But she said at least one city manager from a community outside the county HRA has indicated that the city would pick up the tab through its own HRA budget for any company located in its city that is chosen for the program.

“This is a business retention and growth program,” Skepper said.

“We don’t often hear about businesses that need some help in growing until they move out of the county.”

“With this economic gardening program, we can provide that help.”

The Edward Lowe Foundation is a nationally-recognized entrepreneurship development organization headquartered in Cassopolis, Mich.

Skepper will be attending the 10th annual National Economic Gardening Conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., June 12 and 13.

Peter Bodley is at [email protected]