By TISH OSBORNE - SUNCOAST NEWS CORRESPONDENT
November 18, 2009 –It appeared like most new ideas - you could have drawn a picture of Chris Gibbons with a little glowing light bulb over his head.
In the 1980s, Gibbons was working in economic development in Leadville, Colo., which had suffered massive layoffs, when he met two local miners who had created an invention- a resin bolt to secure steel mats overhead in the mine.
It occurred to Gibbons that what Leadville needed in response to job losses in this remote location was not to attract more businesses from outside, as tradition dictated. The solution could be to take advantage of the ingenuity of those already there, like a pair of miners who had created something that could be used in mines everywhere.
In 1989, he found the same thing in Littleton, Colo. This time he got help from researchers to develop a demonstration program. With the miners in mind, they looked for innovation among existing business to generate sustainable economic growth.
It got the incongruous name of "economic gardening" and almost 20 years after the Littleton project, it's become the buzz phrase in Florida economic development.
Gov. Charlie Crist dedicated $10 million of Florida's stimulus funds to economic gardening in January. It makes $8.5 million available in short-term, low-interest loans of $250,000 to existing state businesses with 10 to 50 employees so they can research expansion.
Another $1.5 million was awarded to the University of Central Florida's Office of Research to establish the Florida Economic Gardening Institute. It provides research and consulting directly to companies.
The governor's office reports that between 1997 and 2007, more than 17 percent of the new jobs created in Florida came from small businesses that expanded. That was more than the new jobs created by newly opened businesses or companies that relocated to Florida.
Between 2005 and 2007, just 8 percent all Florida establishments were companies with 10 to 99 employees, yet those companies created nearly 36 percent of the new jobs during that period.
A conference with a panel of economic gardening consultants was held Nov. 16 at Pasco-Hernando Community College West Campus, New Port Richey, sponsored by the Pasco Economic Development Council.
Two of the presenters are Steve Quello, an Orlando-area economic development consultant who worked with the governor's office, and Randy Berridge, president of the Florida High Tech Corridor Council. Also appearing at economic gardening conferences across the state are Gibbons and Tom O'Neal, associate vice president for research and commercialization at UCF and CEO of the UCF Technology Incubator.
"The message of 'economic gardening' is to allocate resources more effectively by focusing on the specific needs of high growth, high potential second-stage companies," Quello explained. "At the core of this is the entrepreneur, who creates the jobs and wealth that drive the economy. Working with UCF, we are providing a supportive environment serving second-stage companies."
"This is the beginning of the beginning," Quello said. "It's comprehensive."
Quello said the institute aims to directly serve 300 residents and second-stage companies with growth potential and assist another 700 companies.
The program has hit the ground running. Berridge was on a panel in Naples the first week of November. Resources are already available online. He pointed to the Virtual Entrepreneur Center at www.flvec.com> where, with a couple clicks, businesses from the 23 counties of Central Florida, including Pasco, can find resources on everything from research funding to transportation assistance. They can post their own firms to the virtual network, too.
"Companies can see 1,000 projects to help them fund research," Berridge said. The site is averaging 1,000 hits a week.
The state and federal small business administrations are providing counseling and research in economic gardening and touting success stories on their web sites.
A seven-county half million-dollar study of business and industry in Tampa Bay set to begin in the next couple months will focus on the capacity of existing firms to innovate and grow.
It's not a totally new idea in Tampa Bay. Chris Steinocher of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional economic development organization, cited some anecdotal evidence. "Out of the 1950s, we had a lot of engineers from the defense industry in the area," he noted.
When the industry waned, these engineers didn't want to leave the area to find work. Instead, many of them transitioned into a new industry. "They spun into the medical device industry," Steinocher said. It's one of the top industries in Tampa Bay today.
Compress the time span into the dynamic, technology driven speed of business development today, and you have a homegrown incidence of the economic gardening approach.
Denise Sanderson, business retention and expansion manager with the PEDC, said the interest for economic gardening is already in Pasco County. Businessmen called the PEDC about it after a CEO Roundtable meeting.
"The theme I'm hearing from them is 'If you're not nimble and quick, you're going to be left behind,' " she commented.
According to consultants like Steve Quello, president of the Winter Park-based public-private initiative CEO Nexus, economic gardening focuses on three main elements:
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