The Littleton City Council adopted an Economic Plan May 7 that is intended to capitalize on all of the things that make Littleton a great city, and to improve the areas that need attention.
“Littleton is a city with many assets,” the plan reads. “It is a great community in which to live, work and play. It possesses an attractive hometown feeling, an extensive system of parks and interconnected trails, a historic Main Street, light rail access and superior public schools. These attributes are a strong foundation on which to build ongoing economic vitality and a proactive plan for strategic development.”
The plan continues with a challenge: “Other states and neighboring communities have outlined plans and identified tools that help attract and retain businesses and guide the development of vacant land, underutilized corridors, infill improvements, and the revitalization of residential areas. To remain competitive, Littleton must do more.”
Economic Development (ED) is the sustained, concerted actions of policy makers and communities that promote the standard of living and economic health of an area.
Economic Gardening has long been the staple of Littleton’s ED efforts, helping existing businesses grow by providing them with sophisticated training and research. But there are signals that Economic Gardening is not enough.
In late 2012, comprehensive citizen and business surveys were conducted. The results indicated that Littleton residents and business owners are concerned about the economy and want the city to do more to improve it.
What Citizens Said
Respondents selected job growth, business retention and business attraction as three of the top four pressing issues facing the city, rating them far higher in importance than trails, crime reduction, and open space. Littleton as a place to work was the lowest-rated aspect of quality of life in the city. Business retention and attraction were also a concern. The city council goal that received the highest proportion of respondents stating that “more effort” should be applied was pursuing a balanced and sustainable local economy.
Given concerns about the local economy in Littleton, most residents felt it was “essential” or “very important” for the city to promote itself as a location for business, shopping, recreation and entertainment. A number of respondents also believed it was important to shop local in Littleton. Additionally, when considering the importance of potential projects in Littleton over the next five to eight years, the city taking an active role in the redevelopment of aging shopping centers was the most important.
The Lessons Begin
Based on the survey data and flat growth in many economic indicators, a comprehensive review of economic development challenges and opportunities was undertaken by city council. As the primary focus of the council for more than a year, an educational journey began that included analyzing and studying strategic data, and meeting with the region’s most knowledgeable economic leaders.
The council’s goals in creating the Economic Plan were to understand ED strategies and risks; learn more about private-sector business development and the government’s role in it; study Littleton’s economic outlook; and become knowledgeable of best practices, collaborative opportunities, regional synergy and innovative thinking.
Increasing the staff and council’s knowledge of these issues was accomplished through many meetings and work sessions. A Think Tank of local business experts took a comprehensive look at Littleton’s policies and practices and made recommendations for improvement. Council also met with representatives from other cities in the metro area who have navigated significant projects.
Officials from Glendale where Infinity Park was built, talked about turning the tiny Denver suburb into Rugby Town USA. The city of only 4,800 people is experiencing great success with large retailers too.
Lakewood’s mayor spoke to city council about the Belmar retail and residential development. This 104-acre project includes 800,000 square-feet of office and retail, 1,300 housing units, and more than 80 shops and restaurants.
A significant highlight and learning opportunity was the Economic Development Symposium where Denver Mayor Michael Hancock was the keynote speaker. The mayor was joined by Tom Clark, CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation and Executive Vice President of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. Dr. Phyllis Resnick, one of Colorado’s premier economists; and Paul Washington, Denver’s Director of Economic Development rounded out the panel.
Council also spent an evening with Anne Ricker, one of the state’s leading experts on urban renewal, who discussed projects around Colorado that would not have been possible without urban renewal, including the Englewood City Center, formerly Cinderella City.
“With an understanding of the assets and character of the city, we can consider what can be done to preserve our values and enhance economic vitality which includes employment, business, property values, retail, and quality of life,” said Council Member Phil Cernanec.
Where Are The Opportunities?
According to Wikipedia, an unintended consequence of economic development is the intense competition between communities, states, and nations for new ED projects in today’s globalized world. With the struggle to attract and retain new businesses, competition is further intensified by the use of many variations of economic incentives. The International Economic Development Council places significant attention on the various activities undertaken by ED organizations to help them compete and sustain vibrant communities. To remain a contender, the city has to step up its level of involvement.
Meetings with developers, business leaders and members of the Think Tank gave anecdotal evidence that the business community perceives Littleton as a city that “is not open to business.” With the knowledge that strong sales tax revenue, good jobs, and attractive housing are key to the city’s ability to provide the quality-of-life and public-safety services citizens enjoy, the city council and staff completed three economic development initiatives:
1. Economic Plan
The Think Tank advisors worked with staff to develop the plan with the goal of preserving the existing character of Littleton while thoughtfully and strategically moving forward in a process that ensures economic vitality and sustainability. The plan includes opportunities for expedited development review, sales tax rebates/shareback programs, incentive policies, permit or tax waivers, updating the development impact fee, and capital improvement and job-creation incentives. These are all new tools in Littleton’s ED toolbox that will be considered on a case-by-case basis. They will be utilized where appropriate and where they can achieve maximum benefit. To read the full plan, visit the city’s website.
Civic Canopy, a Denver non-profit that specializes in stakeholder engagement and consensus-building, was retained by the city to develop a visioning process. They produced an illustration entitled Our Littleton, Planning Tomorrow Together, which captures city council’s vision for Littleton. The map-like drawing shows familiar Littleton landmarks set in a series of three concentric areas corresponding to the three parts of the vision. The center of the illustration defines Littleton’s heritage; “across the street” in the illustration represents current development; and the edges of the illustration symbolize the possibility for the future. This vision will help guide the city council’s development decisions going forward. A large copy of the vision is in the council chamber at the Littleton Center.
3. Marketing and Branding
In 2011, the city council and staff participated in a graduate student project with the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business Marketing Department. Both a marketing audit and brand audit were completed, and a five-component public sector marketing campaign was recommended. The audit stated, “while it is important to have a small-town feel, business owners feel that drawing in younger patrons could prove beneficial to current businesses and be even more productive down the road. By appealing to a younger demographic, shops that are more current can move to Littleton and create a more vibrant atmosphere that attracts young people and encourages them to not only make purchases there, but also consider moving to Littleton in the future.”
The audit continued, “the basic recommendation is to be strongly proactive in shaping the brand of the city, much as its competitors are currently doing.” Philosophy Communications created a brand for the city. The process included research, data-gathering and interviews with residents, non-residents, business owners, and visitors. Six core values for the city were identified and used to develop the brand: a strong sense of community; small-town feeling; parks, trails, trees and open space; vibrant, historic downtown; top-rated schools; and location.
The tagline, “Anything But Little” cues to the “community, small-town feeling” attribute while conveying a sense of irony that Littleton may feel small, but what happens in Littleton is big!
Work continues on a new web site that is devoted exclusively to marketing the city and as a resource for Littleton businesses.
What Are Other Communities Doing?
The Jefferson County Economic Development Corp. set a goal to raise $3.9 million over the next five years to fund the Forward Jeffco Initiative. Its goal is to recruit 25 to 30 new business prospects per quarter in the aerospace, energy, bioscience, enabling technologies and consumer product/creative service industries to increase economic growth in the county.
Governor John Hickenlooper signed the $20.5 billion 2013/2014 state budget April 29 which includes an extra $5.9 million dedicated to economic development. According to the Denver Business Journal, the new ED money is a priority for the governor and includes:
- $2.9 million more for incentives for relocating and expanding companies.
- $1 million more for increased film incentives.
- $2 million for increased tourism marketing and development of a state branding campaign to attract tourists and entrepreneurs.
A New Beginning!
Littleton is embarking on a new strategy for economic development. The first successes of this effort are now coming to realization. The Economic Plan states that in the past, “Development has ‘happened’ in Littleton, instead of being thoughtfully directed. Now is the time for the city council to continue its lead in this process; to serve as the moral compass for the community and encourage a bright future for Littleton.”
“It is exciting to be part of the city council that has listened, learned, and responded,” said Council Member Bruce Beckman. “A top priority has been to foster an atmosphere that goes past the challenges and looks to the opportunities,” he added.
This is not the end of the journey. It is the beginning of an exciting time for Littleton!