Down the rabbit hole

Armstrong Spallumcheen Chamber executive director Patti Noonan discusses the concept of 'economic gardening.'

As I write this, our Celebrate Canada – Countdown to Canada Day is underway.

It comprises 15 days of activities, most of them organized by chamber member businesses or organizations.

Many chamber members do not own or operate large industry or franchises, and most were not recruited to start their business here. In fact, the majority are home-grown, a common trend in rural communities across Canada.

Recruiting business is usually referred to as economic development. We hear about economic development daily, but what is the cost to municipalities? What are the long term benefits? Can you represent everyone within the same function? While economic development does have its place, there is a new idea out there that may be more fitting for our community – economic gardening.

Economic gardening is a term developed in Littleton, Colo. and is an alternative to the traditional economic development practice of recruiting industries and corporations. The idea that our community could experience positive growth if we shifted our focus from trying to attract distant businesses, and instead, concentrated on growing local companies. It is an appealing notion, especially as the people most likely to respect the quality of life we enjoy now are the very people who have grown up here, or have already chosen to live here and are now wanting to also make a living here.

Research by David Birch at MIT indicates the majority of all new jobs in any local economy are produced by the “harvest” of small, local businesses in the community. Recruiting successes drew newspaper headlines but they were a minor part (often less than five per cent) of job creation in most local economies. Further research indicated that companies relocate to an area where production costs are initially low – cheaper land and buildings, lower labour costs and recruiting incentives – but as costs increase, these companies can sometimes relocate again to cheaper grounds.

So instead of the traditional approach to economic development – maybe the concept of growing our business community is the same as building any community – you work from the inside out, and in our case, rely primarily on entrepreneurs. This idea could work here, and in communities the world over, keeping our global footprint small while allowing us to become successful. The basis of our economic garden would be the concept that small, local companies are the source of jobs and wealth.

But where does that leave our economic development functions? The job of economic development could be to create welcoming and nurturing environments for small local companies. It could become a resource for them to find funding to grow ideas into reality, or how to maneuver through the world of government permits and licences.

Who knows what might happen then? Littleton compared their experiences to Alice following the rabbit down the hole to Wonderland – a long journey with many bends and twists, and full of constant surprises.

I think the solution is for municipal councils, chambers and economic development functions to dig in and get dirty. I believe by “gardening” together we will create a strong economic base from which our communities can grow and prosper.

Why don’t you follow us down the rabbit hole? The trip will be interesting!

Patti Noonan is the executive director of the Armstrong Spallumcheen Chamber of Commerce.