BY TONI THOM
We’ve heard a lot about jobs bills this year. (Interestingly, the “JOBS” pins some lobbyists wear in the Oregon Capitol are made in Canada.) Many cause controversy – more critics are questioning tax breaks, and weakening environmental protections raises concerns. One humble proposal with broad bipartisan support could positively impact how we encourage job creation. It’s called Grow Oregon.
Between 1998 and 2008 all net job creation in Oregon came from local companies with 100 or fewer employees. We can do more to help these small and medium-sized businesses thrive – that’s what Grow Oregon is all about.
Recently my company, based in Tualatin, became involved in a program popularly called “economic gardening” that provides market research and competitive intelligence to local businesses. From our perspective, it’s among the most effective economic development tools available. It was recently named a “Top 25 Government Innovation” by the Harvard Kennedy School.
Economic gardening began in Littleton, Colo.,when their biggest employer left in 1987. Rather than “hunting” for a replacement, Littleton invested locally. Result: the jobs base doubled, sales tax revenue tripled while population grew 25%. The concept has since been refined and applied successfully at the state level. Using economic gardening, Florida grew 592 jobs and $133.6 million in GDP in 2010.
Lawmakers should jump at the chance to adopt this farsighted strategy.
In 2009 our company introduced a line of custom printed keyboards called Keyscaper. In the depths of the recession, we were spending immense energy keeping our core business afloat. We hadn’t the time nor the resources to do our own market research. Our confidence was at an all time low.
When the City of Tualatin referred us to the Portland-Vancouver Regional Partners’ Economic Gardening program we were skeptical. Remembering past experiences, we wanted nothing to do with government bureaucracy. But after some initial conversations with a surprisingly knowledgeable, perceptive staff, we decided to participate.
The quality, relevance and speed of the service were impressive. The staff really understood our business. Upon implementing their recommendations, Keyscaper’s sales skyrocketed from a few thousand dollars a month to over $100,000 in October 2010, and continue to grow in 2011. Soon we were selling directly to retail outlets like Best Buy and to companies like Google and Boeing through a new partner, Ovation Worx, to which the program connected us. The results speak for themselves: Sales growth in our Keyscaper line combined with core business growth allowed us to add 16 positions, increasing our staff size by 50% in one year.
The “Grow Oregon” proposal now awaiting funding from the Legislature would provide a targeted suite of services to growth businesses all over Oregon at a very low cost. (The market value of the research we received was less than $2,000.) From what I have personally experienced, I can attest this is a powerful business development tool.
Tax breaks and subsidies may sometimes make sense, but what businesses need most are customers, markets and revenue. Economic gardening helps companies unlock their potential to grow. In a time when Oregon’s economy is just beginning to recover, let’s invest scarce dollars where we know they’ll have an impact.
Toni Thom is the CEO of Strategic Printing and Manufacturing Solutions Inc. and Keyscaper.com