Four local companies plow into ‘economic gardening’

MIDDLEBURY — While many local residents are reaping bountiful harvests of vegetables from their summer gardens, four area businesses are planting seeds for future economic growth thanks to a program launched by the Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC).
The development corporation’s “economic gardening” initiative is using a combined total of $16,000 in federal grants and participants’ contributions to give four local enterprises the extra training, support and information they need to eventually expand their respective operations. Participating in the economic gardening program are the Bowles Corp. of North Ferrisburgh, Bristol-based Senix Corp., Vermont Natural Ag Products of Middlebury and Cornwall-base Sunrise Orchards.
The ACEDC is working with the Edward Lowe Foundation in conjunction with the National Center for Economic Gardening to run the program. As described by the Edward Lowe Foundation, economic gardening is an “innovative, entrepreneur-centered economic growth strategy that offers balance to the traditional economic practice of business recruitment, often referred to as ‘economic hunting.’” It has been in existence for over three decades, first pioneered by Chris Gibbons in 1989 in Littleton, Colo. It is a business growth strategy now being used successfully in at least 41 states, according to ACEDC Executive Director Robin Scheu. Addison County’s newly launched economic gardening program is the first of its kind in Vermont, and in fact in the Northeast, Scheu noted.
“I have been trying to bring economic gardening to the state of Vermont for a while,” Scheu said, noting that Florida recently earmarked $1.5 million to extend the program in the Sunshine State.
“Economic gardening has had a measurable impact on job creation and revenues in other states where it has been used,” Scheu said.
Economic gardening, Scheu said, is primarily aimed at existing businesses that have growth aspirations, but don’t have the resources or personnel to cultivate the tools needed to develop expansion plans and put them in motion.
“It is not designed for people who are very happy with what they are doing, because they don’t need that kind of help,” Scheu said. “From a strategic standpoint, I will work with any business that wants to be here — businesses that want to grow or just be successful and stay healthy. Those that want to grow … might make use of the economic gardening tool.”
The program will provide the four businesses with important, high-level technical assistance through a four- to five-person virtual National Strategic Research Team that will act as extended staff for each participating company. The engagement focuses on some key issues, including dealing with changes in strategic direction, the business model and developing new opportunities; chasing down leads in identifying and finding specific markets and customers to match the company as it evolves; and helping company officials understand what personnel, social media and other needs it will have as it grows.
Scheu said it takes each participating business six to eight weeks to go through the economic gardening process. The Strategic Research Team will provide a report to each of the businesses, and the ACEDC will be able to help participants track their progress in meeting the goals outlined in the reports.
The Bowles Corporation recently completed its round of economic gardening, which focused on one of the company’s subsidiaries, Windstream Power. Windstream Power is an alternative energy program that focuses on energy education and devices — such as its “Bike Power Generator” and “Human Power Generator” — that turn human movement into energy.
Sheila Kerr is an owner of Windstream Power and is very pleased with the help the company received through economic gardening.
“It worked very well and allowed us to gain another perspective on other forms of marketing that might be available to us,” Kerr said. Among other things, the (Strategic Research Team) helpers recommended some upcoming business conferences that could be helpful and went through Windstream’s Website to critique and propose ways it could be improved.
“As a result of the economic gardening, we are already making plans to expand into other markets,” Kerr said.
Windstream currently has 14 full-time employees.
Scheu is unsure about the future of economic gardening, as it is greatly dependant on grant money. Scheu would like to see the state Legislature appropriate $100,000 annually to “garden” 25 business statewide. But state funds have been very tight in recent years.
“I will keep on my quest to make it a state program,” Scheu said.
John Flowers is at johnf@

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