Lessons from GrowFL, Florida’s Statewide Economic Gardening Project

by Christine Hamilton-Pennell
Growing Local Economies, Inc.

Florida’s popular statewide economic gardening program, GrowFL, has been hit by funding woes. “In a move that surprised local economic development officials, Gov. Rick Scott eliminated $2.5 million in state funding for two programs aimed at promoting business growth,” a $2 million cut to the budget for the University of Central Florida’s GrowFL economic gardening program, and a $500,000 cut to the statewide Small Business Development Centers. Program officials are assessing how the cuts will affect their efforts.

This despite the widely-touted success of the program in helping entrepreneurs create new jobs, and the governor’s campaign commitment to grow private-sector jobs in Florida.

The GrowFL experience illustrates the vagaries that attend to state government funding of economic gardening programs (and relying upon government funding sources at other levels as well). Economic development programs are taking a hit all across the county. Regional approaches to economic gardening (EG) with more diversified funding streams may make more sense, since economies are usually geographically bounded and local folks have more investment in what happens in their communities.

The approach that Don Macke of the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship and I take when consulting with communities about implementing an economic gardening project is that EG is a strategy that operates within a larger entrepreneurial development system. Economic gardening brings a sophisticated set of market research tools and high-level technical assistance to a selected segment of growth entrepreneurs. It’s an important strategy, but one that can’t stand alone. It must be integrated into the formal and informal systems that already exist in a community.

We believe that effective EG programs need to be built from the ground up—that is, from the local community level first. Businesses are located within a specific community, and those on the ground are in the best position to understand where the growth businesses are and how they relate to the larger political, economic, and community infrastructure.

Building support for EG at the local level ultimately means that the community has some investment in the project—they have “skin in the game”—as well as providing a network of advocates who can support the project politically. Community support also provides a greater opportunity to develop program sustainability by capitalizing the project from a number of different sources—both public and private. A diversified portfolio is always better than banking on only one investment.

NetWork Kansas is a great example of how that kind of grassroots infrastructure can support an EG effort. NetWork Kansas, directed by Steve Radley, has operated as an entrepreneurial support system for several years at the state level, but has built its structure around local community networks, including more than 420 network partners across the state. Wally Kearns, retired state SBDC director, and many others, including the staff of the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, have worked with these rural communities in Kansas for many years. They have sought to bolster local community development and support for entrepreneurship, and to increase their capacity to provide assistance to local businesses.

The NetWork Kansas pilot Economic Gardening Network has been able to tap into the expertise and knowledge of the network partners to identify potential target businesses, and to close the loop back to the businesses after they have received technical assistance and market research from the central team. It will be interesting to see how this project is capitalized once the USDA grant funding runs out.

We think it is appropriate to broker and/or provide high-end EG services through a centralized center—whether at a university or other location—since many communities do not have the capacity to provide these services themselves. Economic gardening services will probably always have to be subsidized by some outside entity to be sustainable. But however an EG project is funded, and at whatever location services are offered, the relationship with the entrepreneur should grow from and be nurtured by the local community. Otherwise, it may be possible to demonstrate that jobs have been created, but not necessarily that the local community has experienced positive economic impact or increases in the wellbeing of its citizens as a result of the intervention.

©2011 Christine Hamilton-Pennell

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2 Comments »

  1. Trish said

    I totally agree with your views on building a base from the ground up locally. The FL governor’s actions are penny-wise and pound foolish.

    • Thanks, Trish. I think governors have a tough job right now, since almost every state has a significant budget deficit to oversome. All the more reason to diversify funding sources!

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