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Issue 2: Community Scale Economics

Littleton, Colorado: A Self Reliant Community in the Global Age

by Christian Gibbons

The name Littleton, Colorado, has become synonymous throughout the nation with the 1999 youth violence tragedy of Columbine High School. But before that event, Littleton had long been known in economic development circles for something much more positive: “economic gardening” - a self-reliant approach to building community.

Until a decade ago, Littleton, like many American towns and cities, was overly reliant on a single large corporation - the aerospace giant Martin Marietta - for its base of jobs. In addition, Littleton pursued a typical economic development strategy - the use of heavy incentives to lure outside companies to relocate to the city.

As a result, Littleton found itself in a roller coaster economy held hostage by the fortunes of its major employer, and in ?a “race to the bottom” competition with other towns and cities to attract new jobs.

In 1990, Littleton decided to try a fresh approach. It launched the New Economy Project with a strategy of “economic gardening” - a commitment to grow its economy by nurturing local companies and supporting local entrepreneurs.

The project has been an outstanding success. The 14 years of recruiting prior to the New Economy Project produced 4,000 jobs in Littleton. In little more than half that amount of time, economic gardening has produced 12,000 jobs, and not one penny has been spent on incentives.

Littleton’s History

Littleton has had two distinct phases in its history: one in which it was a small, self-sufficient agricultural community; and one in which the economic condition rose and fell with the fortunes of a large national corporation.

From its founding in 1872 to the mid-1950s, Littleton was a small farm town serving the needs of the surrounding area. In 1955, Glen Martin moved a major rocket-building facility just southwest of town because of its distance from potential Soviet missile attack. After that date, the growth and health of the community became inextricably linked with the fortunes of Martin Marietta (later Lockheed Martin).

The Fortune 500 company employed as many as 14,000, which included a well-educated engineering population, many of whom have been active as local leaders and community builders. But Lockheed, which is based in Bethesda, Maryland, suffered several major economic setbacks over the years that impacted Littleton in a major way. For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, over 7,000 people were laid off in this southern Denver suburb.

During this same period, the Denver metro area was going through a severe recession caused by the downsizing and exodus of energy companies during the “oil bust.” Littleton was caught with a severely overbuilt real estate market, which had been fueled by the speculative investments of savings and loan banks. Over a million square feet of retail shopping center space sat empty and residential and office projects either stalled or failed. The go-go days ended in lawsuits and developer flight, and the Resolution Trust Corporation became one of Littleton’s biggest landholders.

Community leaders had several reactions. They decried the speculative building spree, which had left the community with vacant shopping centers all over town and driven many projects into bankruptcy. They insisted that the focus of economic development activities be shifted to local businesses with roots in the community. They also said they wanted good jobs for their children in Littleton ? more options than low-paying retail and fast-food staff.

In short, the community wanted to take back its own economic destiny from out-of-state corporations, speculative real estate developers and low-end service jobs. It wanted an economy built from the inside out with employers who had a commitment to Littleton and would build the community as well as their companies. It wanted good jobs with good pay that would stay in the community.

The New Economy Program

Following this crisis, Jim Woods, the Deputy City Manager, and Christian Gibbons, the city’s newly-named Director of Business/Industry Affairs, had the simple charge: Build Littleton’s economy using its local entrepreneurs.

Starting in 1987, they collaborated with the Center for the New West, a Denver think tank, to develop public policies and programs that would nurture the entrepreneurial companies in town. Although simple in concept, their twelve year effort has been a long and strange journey trying to understand how the entrepreneurial world works. It turned out to be not as simple as it seemed on the surface.

Through their experience with the New Economy Program, Woods and Gibbons have distilled three major roles for the public to play in the growth of entrepreneurial companies:

  • Provide Basic Infrastructure. Infrastructure can be thought of as the basic garden plot in which economic activity occurs. Most communities, regardless of their approach to economic development, recognize the need for basic infrastructure - good streets and water and sewer systems.
  • Improve Quality of Life. Littleton invested heavily in open space (about three times the national average). They purchased a square mile along the South Platte River to keep as a permanent wildlife refuge. They built trails along every major drainage channel and irrigation ditch in the community. They operate two historical farms and have expanded their library. The city also helps fund major community events like a 10-day Western Welcome Week and an annual Christmas Walk.
  • Strengthen the Intellectual Infrastructure. Littleton’s intellectual infrastructure program has three components:
    1. Develop educational programs which support the local economy. Gibbons and Woods pushed for the development of a telecommunications curriculum at Arapahoe Community College (ACC) to support that industry. The city runs the Colorado Center for Information Technologies, a joint project between Littleton, Colorado University (CU), and ACC. CCIT brings CU graduate engineering courses into the community via microwave live from studios on the Boulder campus.
    2. 2. Provide information to increase the level of innovation. The New Economy team believes that as the amount of information increases, innovation increases. Therefore, a major portion of each day is spent on database searching. The staff subscribes to 15 database services (like DIALOG and Nexis Lexis) and CD-ROM products. They also access over 100,000 publications worldwide and provide Littleton businesses with marketing lists, competitor intelligence, industry trends, new product releases, financial information and customized research. The office services about 500 contacts per year.
    3. Facilitate connections. The New Economy project is built in part on something called Complexity Theory, that suggests that innovation increases when companies step up their level of interconnection with their business environment - a process which pushes them from stability (not enough change and innovation) towards chaos (i.e., the chaos of new possibilities, new opportunities and new ideas.)

Accordingly, the New Economy team believes that increasing the number of connections between companies, customers, competitors, educational institutions, and trade associations pushes companies ?and ultimately the economy - toward what Complexity Theory calls “the sweet spot” between stability and chaos. When that happens, new ideas and new products, better adapted to their environment, come into existence, and that feeds the growth of the Littleton economy.

Self-Reliant vs. Self-Sufficient

It should be noted that Littleton makes a distinction between the concepts of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Littleton does not consider itself self-sufficient nor do they aspire to be. The companies based in Littleton work all over the world, which makes them highly interdependent with others. However, the community is self-reliant in terms of taking responsibility for its own economic future. Littleton did not depend on the federal government or distant corporations to salvage its economy when times were bleak. It relied, rather, on its own initiative, with a local government creating a nurturing “garden” in which entrepreneurs could survive and thrive.

Littleton Today

Today Lockheed Martin still has a presence in Littleton, although much diminished from its heyday when it employed nearly a quarter of the population. Over 18 telecommunications companies, many of them home grown, have replaced aerospace as the dominant industry.

Echo Star, one of two providers of satellite delivered cable TV in the nation, has grown from a small provider of satellite antennas to a company that now employees over 1,100 people. Software, scientific instruments and specialized engineering are other growing industry clusters.

The Business/Industry Affairs Department of the City of Littleton maintains a mail list on the Internet called econ-dev that has over 400 participants from 18 countries discussing this kind of approach to economic development. Over 230 communities have inquired about Littleton’s program, including people in Australia, Northern Ireland, Lithuania and Norway.

“Going Local” is at the heart of the new sustainable economic development strategies. Littleton, Colorado, is proving that it is possible to build a vibrant and upscale economy by focusing on the local base.

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