Economic Gardening in Houston, Minnesota

"Men and Wheat", Joe Jones, 1939

The agrarian revolution took place on the various continents between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago, but the evolution of “economic gardening,” while promising, remains in infancy. In process for twenty years in the work of Chris Gibbons, Director of Business/Industry Affairs for Littleton, Colorado, economic gardening is a provoking, simple alternative to what Gibbons calls trawling for capital. Under his leadership, Littleton has no marketing budget nor do they provide incentives to individual companies, while posting strong economic fundamentals.

Highlights of the Garden Manual
Inspired in part by experience in Leadville, Colorado, where layoffs in mining pushed the town’s unemployment rate north of 40%, Gibbons now describes the economic gardening concept with a series of ideas:

– The essential concept is that relying primarily on the entrepreneurship found in any community in America is a more efficient, durable mode of cultivating economic activity and tax base than recruiting jobs.

– A region’s cultural proclivity for entrepreneurial activity, risk and innovation are key to converting the ideas of local people into growth companies.

– Towns primarily in the business of producing commodities are in a constant duel with both increasingly international markets and regional weather conditions. Gibbons observes that frequently such towns pursue commodity industries, which favor low costs of labor, utilities, and taxes. When the fortunes of the town and regional markets improve, costs for the commodity industries rise and such firms look again to relocate.

– Providing information on topics ranging from markets to vacant real estate can represent a powerful public contribution to fruitful economic gardening, as in Littleton’s case.

– Infrastructure in the form of the physical (transportation, telecommunications, parks and open space) and the intellectual (links with area institutions that provide continuing education and technical training opportunities) is an important support to local entrepreneurialism.

Local Produce
The community of Houston, Minnesota is located in southeast Minnesota, roughly twenty miles from the Mississippi River and slightly farther to the southeast corner of the state.  Houston’s population has held stable in recent years, recorded at around 1,020 during the 1990 and 2000 census, as well as a 2005 estimate.

The population of school-age children has, however, been diminishing as a proportion of the whole. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, the resident school-age population (termed “average daily membership” in the K12 lexicon) has fallen from 528 in the 2002-3 year to a projected 464 in the 2008-9 year. Similar declining enrollment trends, though not usually as steep, are not uncommon in Minnesota, and they create significant stress because most district funding is apportioned on a per-pupil basis, while only a portion of school costs vary with enrollment. The specter of consolidation remains for many districts, including – until not long ago – the Houston School District.

Calling on local entrepreneurial skills, the district moved forward with the formation of the Minnesota Virtual Academy. The academy was the first online education program approved by the state, and now ranks as the largest provider of public education provided through the internet medium. The number of students served by the Houston School District has risen from 528 in the 2002-3 school year to a projected 1,456 in 2008-9 – an increase of 175%, and a very encouraging shift for the district’s future.

Houston’s experience strikes me as a compelling example of the use of economic gardening to create long-term results for cities, large and small alike.

A network of professionals trade ideas about economic gardening through a Google group; visit their forum here.

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