Michigan's economic "gardeners" advocate growing our own businesses


This week, Governor Granholm is wrapping up her 10th investment trip abroad. This time, she tried to persuade Italian and German companies to open up shop in Michigan. But some economic developers say Michigan should shift efforts from attracting out-of-state businesses to growing what's already here. As part of our "reWorking Michigan" series, WKAR's Mark Bashore digs into the thinking behind "Economic Gardening."

Johanna Lubahn is a consultant. She's based in Okemos. But she travels the world helping businesses run call centers.

"Australia, Germany, Cape Town, South Africa, Dubai ."

Wherever she goes, a familiar Michigan face is never farther away than the TV set in her hotel room.

"There's Jeff Daniels promoting 'Bring your business to Michigan.'"

Chelsea-native Jeff Daniels has become our state's most visible business ambassador, getting companies around the world to consider a move to the Great Lakes state.

"This is where you need to be. Visit Michigan Advantage-dot-org today...

But some economic developers suggest we should think less about hunting for companies thousands of miles away. Instead, they say, think about Michigan. Think about its rich, moist soil. Think of seeds. Think of a garden---a green ECONOMIC garden. Rob Fowler is Executive Director of the Lansing-based Small Business Association of Michigan.

"Economic gardening is about creating jobs from inside our state."

He says we're paying a price by neglecting our own backyard. Fowler says data from Michigan's Edward Lowe Foundation---which studies entrepreneurialism and helps growing companies---offer a lesson.

"From 1993 to 2007, you take all the companies all the jobs created from companies who located within our state and you subtract all the jobs taken away by companies who moved out ,it's negative jobs. The net result of fifteen-years worth of hunting strategy is negative jobs."

Fowler says in the aftermath of its manufacturing golden age, Michigan's future job growth will happen in small and midsize companies--- many of which are already here.

Other business groups have cultivated the idea further. They've roped off the most promising section of Michigan's economic garden---where seeds have sprouted and are growing. Mark Lange is Executive Director of the Edward Lowe Foundation.

"Once they hit 10 employees to 99 employees and they hit a million in revenue, that second stage is really critical "

Lange explains that these "stage two" companies are off to a good start--"knee high by the fourth of July" so to speak. But the harvest is a ways off. And a good one depends on the right nourishment during this phase. That nourishment, he says, is information.

"Information they need about their customers, about their competitors, about their website all the kind of information that larger companies have and use on a daily basis to grow "

Economic Gardeners say instead of trying to add hundreds of jobs with a few companies from elsewhere, we need to add one or two jobs to hundreds of companies, already here.

Strolling the sprawling warehouse of Lansing's Delphi Glass---a growing, second-stage company---Executive Director Lisa Parks offers that no one thinks business attraction efforts should be abandoned.

"There's some merit to encouraging businesses to come---new business to come to Michigan. But, you know, look around. There are dozens of us who are making it happen every day and creating new jobs "

Michigan's top economic development officials say the state's already got dirt under its fingernails. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation says that, TV spots aside, it's doing more for in-state businesses than ever. Gardeners support the trend. But after decades of attraction strategies, they say turning their attention to homegrown industries is like turning around a battleship. Again, Rob Fowler:

"I believe we're at that point where it's the next big strategy. And that things will become apparent and we'll look back and think 'Ooh, while we thought we were doing some of these things, we really weren't.'"

Economic Gardeners are working hard to spread their...ideas. Especially in this election year. They're hoping that after November, their goals for Michgan's economy will take root with a new crop of leaders.

reWorking Michigan
For more on job creation and workforce evolution in Michigan, visit WKAR.org/reworkingmichigan