A new kind of gardening in the Garden City
Missoula has been Montana’s Garden City since before World War II when our extensive truck farms, flower gardens and orchards provided much of the state’s produce. Three generations later, we’re still Montana’s Garden City, though truck farming isn’t the driver of the economy it once was. Perhaps it’s time our green thumb nickname was expanded to gardening of a different type.
Economic gardening is an entrepreneurial approach to developing and growing a diverse economy from the inside out. It’s proven to be a truly effective strategy that brings balance to traditional business attraction efforts and actually enhances a community’s attractiveness to outside employers while generating jobs from within. Interestingly, the concept was piloted by Littleton, Colorado, a small city in the Rockies with a well-educated talent pool, enviable quality of life and an employment base shifting away from its historic industries.
The idea behind economic gardening is to develop the local economy by identifying the right businesses and startups and supporting them at critical stages of growth, what are known as stage-two or stage-three companies. These companies can be of any size, but all are at points in time when they must establish a more formalized structure for operations, capital, talent, etc., to continue their growth trend.
The focus on these companies is key because, regardless of their size, they are on the cusp of making a significant leap in terms of employment. Consider this, in a study conducted for the Denver metro area, 81 percent of net new jobs were created by just 21 percent of all companies. In other words, identifying and supporting those few job creators can make a significant difference in a community’s economic future. Letting them sputter can actually result in a loss of jobs.
While every community is different, there are three core areas most economic gardening strategies work to support and enhance.
- Infrastructure: This means building and supporting the assets essential to conducting commerce and to the overall quality of life within the community. Certainly, that includes physical infrastructure such as roads or broadband, but it goes much further to include a strong educational system, cultural resources, a healthful environment and an efficient municipal/county government.
- Connectivity: It is vital to increase the interaction and exchange between businesses and resource providers — both public and private — within a community. This connectivity leads to the exchange of ideas, faster development of technologies, access to capital, talent advancement, more efficient community planning processes and, of course, direct commerce activity.
- Market Intelligence: Large corporations have remarkable access to analytics and competitive data. Historically, smaller companies and startups don’t. Providing access to a range of vital data on markets, real estate, customers, talent and competitors often provides growing companies the intel they need to compete and propel themselves to the next stage. But this goes beyond just information gathering. It includes the coaching and assistance needed to utilize the information for strategic growth decisions.
Nickname or no, Missoula is ripe for an economic gardening approach. We have a highly-educated and skilled talent base, a university that turns out innovative leaders, a quality of life that is enviable, a diverse group of businesses at various stages of growth, and a community eager to make the necessary support happen. In short, we have the seeds, the soil and the labor.
At Missoula Economic Partnership, we are working with Bitterroot Economic Development District (BREDD) as they cultivate an economic gardening strategy. We’re also pulling together community partners, identifying community assets, reaching out to stage-two companies and researching the kinds of best-fit industries and sectors to pursue. All of this is being done collaboratively with private and public leaders throughout the community.
And already it is yielding promising fruit. In the past several weeks, we’ve helped companies secure more than $265,000 in public funds through the Big Sky Trust Fund. Further, we helped those companies leverage that into more than $460,000, total. That’s money being invested in technologies, salaries, growth and the economy. And it’s just a start.
Missoula has long been Montana’s Garden City. With our collective spirit, innovative thinking and hard work, we’re looking to become Montana’s Economic Gardening City. Together, we will do it.