If you have any stake in Stockton’s economy, you know the pain of watching residents (a.k.a. super commuters) leave the city to work in the Bay Area every day of the week.
“That’s revenue flight, as far as we’re concerned,” says Jim Conklin, a Stockton-based marketing consultant. “So much talent and revenue leave the area because you spend money where you work. We want to take advantage of job skills and make it so they can work here and live here.”
To bolster local businesses and reclaim some of that revenue, Conklin led the effort to bring the Economic Gardening Program to Stockton last year, hosted by the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce. The nationally recognized program operates in more than 25 states. Stockton is one of the first California cities to adopt the program, which focuses on second-stage companies — those with 10-99 employees and an annual revenue between $1 million and $50 million — and gives entrepreneurs support and resources to thrive in their industry.
This isn’t about business plans or workforce development. Industry professionals help entrepreneurs take a broad look at a given market, then figure out specific strategies to raise visibility and capitalize on strengths to maximize growth.
The economic gardening concept has its roots in Littleton, Colo. In 1987, missile manufacturer Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) eliminated 7,500 jobs. But in the two decades to follow, an intensive local job creation strategy helped Littleton double its jobs and triple sales tax revenue. This is the kind of boost a city like Stockton could use and why the program is so appealing.
Stockton just finished its pilot program, which had three companies enrolled. Conklin had hoped to get five businesses in the pilot, but most applicants failed to meet the criteria, he says. He admits the criteria serves more like guidelines than rules, but the business must be a second-stage company.
In addition to serving the local market, companies need to be already exporting services or products outside of San Joaquin County, which Conklin says is where the real growth potential is, generating opportunities for additional revenues and jobs. A number of applicants didn’t export, so they were declined. Others hadn’t shown any growth in the past several years, which is why the annual bottom line needs to be fairly strict.
Another benefit of the program is that it supports both low-to-moderate income residents in moving up the corporate ladder and low-to-moderate income businesses as they expand. With this effort, the program is eligible for Community Reinvestment Act funding opportunities, Conklin says, which gives them leeway to accept a company, even if it doesn’t strictly meet the criteria.
For selected companies, the economic gardening team provides a customized assessment and remains directly involved for six to 10 weeks. After that, the local Stockton team checks in on a quarterly basis for at least 12 months to track the company’s progress, Conklin says. Conklin wants to bring in a minimum of 10 companies initially and believes the applicant numbers will go up once word gets out.
“It’s about convincing people this program works,” he says. “It isn’t going to cost you anything. It almost sounds too good to be true.”
It didn’t take much to convince Mike Kristoff, financial controller for The Grupe Company, a Stockton-based real estate agency, which participated in the pilot program. Kristoff knew Conklin personally. After hearing about the program, he thought an objective business assessment – without paying thousands to a consulting firm – made sense for Grupe’s Greenhorn Creek Resort.
“I’ve worked for The [Grupe] Company for 16 years,” Kristoff says. “What the program did is highlighted strengths, but also pinpointed weaknesses we needed to correct right away. Sometimes it’s hard to look at weaknesses, face the facts and make adjustments.”
The biggest revelation for Kristoff was the company’s website wasn’t mobile-friendly. With everybody using their phones and tablets now to plan everything, from golf events to weddings, The Grupe Company needed to catch up to the times, he says. Kristoff oversees the Greenhorn Creek Resort in Angels Camp, and the assigned economic gardening team helped him identify key sectors that might be available for small midweek golfing groups. The team determined employees in the medical, police, fire and hospitality industries would be worth reaching out to. The assessment was just completed three months ago. It will take at least six months to quantify results, he says, but he expects positive sales growth for 2018.
With more success stories like this, Conklin believes the program will speak for itself. But he also understands second-stage entrepreneurs tend to be “so busy because they’ve reached the second stage, which makes it hard to get them outside of their focus zone,” he says.
Of course, growth takes time. Douglass Wilhoit Jr., CEO of the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce, believes the program will ultimately provide solid benefits for Stockton’s local economy.
“I don’t think there has been anything like this in this area,” he says. “In other areas, it has been successful. Once you get four or five success stories, the word will spread, which gives chances for more businesses to grow and prosper.”
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