Kimber Lanning came from Arizona to Billings to talk about a different kind of gardening.
Lanning, executive director of Local First Arizona, spoke to a full room at the Billings Public Library Saturday about how to grow a vital local economy.
She was one of many speakers featured in the daylong Homegrown Prosperity conference put on by the Northern Plains Resource Council. The focus of the day was how Montana’s cities and towns can build thriving, resilient local economies that feature home-grown businesses and jobs.
Lanning leads a statewide nonprofit that works to strengthen communities and local economies by growing, supporting and celebrating local businesses. She’s also owned a music store for 27 years.
Lanning, who has lived almost her entire life in Phoenix, told her audience she noticed a phenomenon among Arizona residents who moved to the state from Chicago. No matter how long they had lived in Arizona, their hearts remained in the Windy City.
So she did her own independent survey of every former Chicagoan she could find, asking them what it was about that city that they loved.
“They said ‘in the neighborhood I used to live, I knew all the business owners,’ ” Lanning said. “They’d say things like ‘I’d walk in the door of a restaurant and they knew what I wanted.’ ”
Or they’d say that they banked at the same place their great-grandparents banked. They felt rooted to the community.
Lanning contrasted that with growing up in Phoenix mostly after the invention of chain stores, where people drove to large stories looking for bargains where they could find them.
“You could take that same person who is behaving in what I call a localized manner, move them to Phoenix, Ariz., and they’re eating at Applebee’s, they’re shopping at Target and they’re wondering why they don’t feel connected,” she said.
Lanning wasn’t criticizing those businesses. Her point was that people have the same experience, no matter where that business is located.
She could fly to Chicago and eat and shop at chain restaurants and stores, she told the group.
“And I could kind of shrug my shoulders and go, huh, I don’t get it, why do people love Chicago so much?” Lanning said. “It’s kind of like the same as everywhere else.”
She described First Arizona as a movement working to better connect people to the places they live. Lanning cited a study by the Knight Foundation that concluded connection to place is the single most leading indicator in places that have prosperity.
When people love where they live, she added, they’re more likely to vote, to volunteer and to give charitably.
“They’re even more likely to pay their taxes without complaining because they love their place and they want to contribute to it,” she said.
Too often, economic developers work to bring in businesses rather than working to develop them locally. But that can have a negative economic effect on a city in more than one way.
For every two jobs created by bringing in outside companies, three are eliminated, she said. On top of that, homegrown businesses hire locally to run their businesses, and they also hire secondary sources, including accountants, graphic designers and web site developers.
Local business owners also spend their money in the city where they live. That recirculates dollars through the local economy.
“Investing in terms of economic development in our home-grown companies that are by their very nature connected to our place is where we need to be spending our time and money,” Lanning said.
Additionally, another study showed that $10 million spent by Americans at independent retailers creates and sustains 110 jobs. That same $10 million spent at a chain store generates 50 jobs, and just 14 jobs if spent at Amazon.
“The way we spend our money really makes a huge difference,” she said.
Lanning also talked about the fact that Phoenix used to be a tear-down culture, where old buildings were razed to make way for new ones. And rigidly interpreted city building codes made it difficult for small businesses to fix up old buildings and open their doors.
Lanning, who became vice chair of the Development Advisory Board in Phoenix, helped to overhaul the adaptive reuse program to streamline it and make it easier so young entrepreneurs could locate in an updated old building.
That created a vibrancy, which connected people to place and spawned new jobs in town, she said. In the changing face of the work environment, young people involved in technology are drawn to funky old buildings, Lanning said.
"When you preserve older buildings, you've got greater walkability, more jobs per block and more night life," another study showed, she said.
That's crucial, knowing that a majority of both Millennials and Boomers have a preference for shorter commute times, quality public transportation and vibrant, dense walkable neighborhoods filled with character.
Re-evaluating the way we think about economic development is called economic gardening. The development model came into being about 15 years ago in Colorado that embraces the idea that entrepreneurs drive economies, and seeks to create jobs by supporting existing companies.
Community vitality is boosted by helping to generate home-grown companies that help retain a town’s authenticity and sense of place that draws people who want to live there. It’s not just a pipe dream, Lanning said, It’s an idea whose time has come.
She gave the example of Old Pasadena, which was home to a variety of locally owned businesses in renovated buildings, and New Pasadena, which was filled with a subsidized sea of chain stores built in a new environment. Old Pasadena outperformed New Pasadena 2 to 1, “even though parking stinks,” Lanning said.
“When the Harvard Business Review is coming out and saying ‘think small for economic development,’ you’ve got to start paying attention.”