Sussex County plants seeds for Economic Gardening initiative

GEORGETOWN — Sussex County government is planting seeds in an economic development initiative geared to help established businesses climb another rung on the ladder of success.

By a 4-1 vote, Sussex County Council Dec. 4 agreed to move forward with Economic Gardening – an entrepreneurial approach which seeks to grow local economies from within.

“It helps second-stage companies by delivering customized information to address strategic growth issues,” said Sussex County Economic Development Director William Pfaff. “In contrast to the recruiting companies from other states or regions known as economic hunting, economic gardening focuses on local companies already operating in our county.”

The initiative partners the county with the Edward Lowe Foundation, an operating foundation established by Ed and Darlene Lowe in 1985 that funds its own programs. As a note of interest, co-founder Ed Lowe, who died in 1995, was the inventor of cat litter.

Mr. Pfaff said second-stage companies are those that “have moved beyond the start-up stage but have not yet reached maturity. Second stage companies are sometimes referred to scaling, or emerging growth companies. Second-stage companies typically have 10 to 99 employees and sales revenues of $1 million to $50 million.”

“These boundaries in terms of the 10 to 99 employees, I think that is a good number,” said Mr. Pfaff. “But I think the $1 million to $50 million is one that we have some leverage in terms of those boundaries, especially in Sussex County rural areas.”

Mr. Pfaff emphasized Economic Gardening is “not a program established for companies that are in trouble or companies that need some assistance with an inventory type process. This is really companies that are beyond the start-up stage and we really want to take them to the next level.”

County council’s approval authorizes Mr. Pfaff to work with the Edward Lowe Foundation on an agreement for an Economic Gardening program and strategic research team engagement not to exceed $25,000. There is a maximum $5,000 per second-stage business.

“The start-up package that they offer is specifically for five businesses the first year,” said Mr. Pfaff.

Second-stage businesses that make the grade will “get a customized information analysis in these key areas: core strategies, market dynamics, innovation and qualified sales leads. Within these areas each business will be assigned a national strategic research team,” said Mr. Pfaff. “These teams will leverage sophisticated corporate level tools and techniques such as commercial data bases, geographic information system (GIS) mapping and search engine optimization and digital marketing.”

The county will issue an RFP (Request For Proposal) to solicit qualified companies for program. There will be an online application process.

Applications, based heavily on one-on-one interviews with the company CEO or equivalent, will be evaluated by the county’s economic development office, the Edward Lowe Foundation and National Strategic Research Team. Agreement awards are based on the company’s “ability to grow and bring new money and jobs into the community,” Mr. Pfaff said.

“The Lowe’s team will come here and participate in the interview process,” said Mr. Pfaff. “The goal is to make sure that potential participants are crystal-clear on the program.”

County councilman Irwin “I.G.” Burton inquired about the number of local companies that might be able to take advantage of the program.

“I think we’ve already identified three potential businesses in the county that are at that second stage, that are really ripe to go to the next level,” said Mr. Pfaff. “I think as we begin to talk this up through our channel partner — who are banks … and companies that they are working with, or some of their clients — I think we need to talk it up.”

The Economic Gardening program was brought before council by Mr. Pfaff at the request of county council president Michael Vincent.

“I asked the economic director to bring this forward and present to you guys … and hope everybody feels the same way; to spend some money and see if we can’t help some businesses,” said Mr. Vincent, who shared information he learned while attending a national conference. “One thing that struck me as interesting … nationwide 92 percent of your growth will be from companies who are already there. It’s not all this panacea of some big company going to show up in Sussex County and bring a thousand jobs or whatever. The base of your growth is from people who already here and want to learn how to grow and expand their business.”

“We’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that it would be a great program to introduce into the county,” said Mr. Pfaff.

The one “no” vote in council’s vote was cast by Samuel Wilson Jr..

About 20 years ago, Chris Gibbons founded the National Center for Economic Gardening. In 2011, Mr. Gibbons collaborated with the Lowe Foundation to oversee economic gardening operations.

“Currently, the Edward Lowe Foundation offers this program in more than 25 states and regions,” said Mr. Pfaff.

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