Littleton, Colo., Plants Investment With High Tech

Littleton, Colo.'s, shrinking economy was no little problem. In 1987, the community of 40,000 was still coping with the aftershocks of layoffs at several Texas-based oil companies when aerospace giant Martin Marietta cut its local rocket engineering staff in half. With an unemployment rate of about 6 percent, the city was facing a severe economic drought.

But instead of just watching the statistics worsen, the community went on the offensive, launching an unusual economic development program that involved making city resources-including its technology tool chest-available to struggling businesses. The city's unemployment rate has been cut in half, due in part, many believe, to the "New Economy" project.

"We're not in a position to shoot a big elephant with tax dollars-to bring in an AT&T or United Airlines," said Susan Thornton, Littleton's mayor pro tem. "We're just too small. Plus, if you just bring in a company by incentives, they can be wooed away by another city with more incentives."

Gazelle Companies

So rather than hunting big game, Littleton's business/industry affairs staff helps what it calls local "gazelle companies"-small, often fast-growing businesses-pursue leads and complete tasks the companies either cannot afford or cannot staff. For instance, the city team may scout out new clients for a local business.

"Typically, small companies don't have the expertise, they're overwhelmed keeping their head above water and don't have the time to learn and function," Thornton said. After a two-year research project, the town concluded that the best way to help the community was to provide free research and access to city resources and technology. For instance, Littleton gives local businesses use of the city's online services and computers. "We believe that jobs are grown locally, and we think the way that happens is for entrepreneurs to have a competitive advantage through information," said Christian Gibbons, director of the town's business/industry affairs office.

Gibbons' shop is set up with Gateway Inc. 166 MHz Pentium PCs, World Wide Web browsers and a T-1 line, letting the staff use the Internet with speed. The speed is essential because the department tries to answer local businesses' queries within half a day. To assist local businesses with market research, the office also subscribes to several databases and services, including DIALOG, Lexus-Nexus and a CD-ROM called Marketplace, which lists details on 15 million businesses nationwide.

The Littleton City Council has generally increased funding for the department, appropriating $321,000 for the office in 1998. Of that, the department budgets $23,000 strictly for database searching and another $6,000 for CD-ROM subscriptions. The office also has an ISDN connection and cameras for videoconferencing over phone lines.

Local businesses use the office as a research and development resource. One company, Fisher Associates Architects and Engineers, used city services after the firm's partnership recently broke up, and Fisher and his wife were starting their business from scratch.

"For a long time [the department] was furnishing us with Commerce Business Daily, a newspaper that lists not only new laws but ads looking for engineers and architects," said David Fisher, president of the firm. "They would give us that online on a weekly basis, sending ads that were seeking applications for this kind of building in Colorado in our parameters. They would cater to us.

Patience Counseled

Despite the 400 inquiries the office receives annually from local businesses, getting businesses to use the service has sometimes been a challenge for the city. "There was skepticism," said Jim Woods, Littleton's deputy city manager. "We found we had to be very patient, and I think there was some frustration among the staff. They saw the potential and they would do a demonstration and then not hear from [local businesses] for months.

"But then they'd get a call out of the blue, saying, 'You know that thing you showed us? Could you show us X?' They would have a specific problem, and we found if we could respond to a specific problem, they would be interested."

The city appears to have a "whatever-it-takes" approach to economic development: The office has sponsored brown-bag lunches for small businesses to sample the information and services its offers. One staff member even knocks on doors a couple of hours each week to solicit interest in the department's services.

All the effort seems to be paying off. In addition to the drop in the unemployment rate, Littleton won an Innovation Award from the National League of Cities this year and since its inception has received more than 220 calls seeking advice from other communities-including two in Australia-on how to set up similar projects. Among the key lessons learned is that knowledge is power: "The more knowledge a business has, the bigger the margins of return and the higher the pay," Gibbons said.

-- Jennifer Zajac is a free-lance writer based in New York City.

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