Tonya Bina: Paratroopers of development land in Granby
Grand County CO Colorado
He had a strong Italian accent, a dark mustache, thick salt-and-pepper hair, eyes that would lock onto another’s with intensity, and when he spoke, his audience hung on every word.
Ernesto Sirolli commanded the Granby town boardroom, not only because he was a dynamic speaker full of stories about his lifetime career in international aid and economic development, but because he spoke about the possibility of Granby’s economic future – something each in the room cared deeply about.
“Granby is where a guy went berserk; let’s turn it around,” he said, reminding everyone of the blemish Marvin Heeymeyer cast on the community eight years ago with his bulldozer. Since then, the rural mountain town went through a tremendous development boom, but when the bubble burst, it was left with excess housing inventory, at least one struggling golf course, and many shattered dreams. Granby, like many rural towns like it, needs help in attracting businesses.
“STOP DOING ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT FROM THE TOP DOWN. IT DOESN’T WORK.” Sirolli shouted to citizens on Jan. 18. A few of us jumped in our seats.
He then said slowly, softly, distinctly: “There are poor people dying of solitude in the basements and garages of this town.”
Sirolli is the founder of the Sirolli Institute, which has offices in Sacramento, Calif., Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and London. For 25 years, the Institute has gone into the poorest of rural communities and successfully introduced economic “gardening.”
Sirolli equates it to an old-fashioned American barn-raising, during which the community helps someone raise a barn for reasons beyond charity. Raising one’s barn props up a neighbor’s livelihood, and isn’t it better to have neighbors who can help you when you’re in the rural West in the grips of winter?
The Sirolli Institute has tested its theories in 300 communities, creating about 14,000 new businesses.
The basis of this man’s concepts stem from his work for the Italian government in Africa. As he witnessed multiple governments pour millions of dollars in international aid into countries such as Zambia and Somalia – fueling ideas people had about how to improve the lives of the African people – he witnessed incredible financial waste. No one ever even asked the African people what they really needed.
“At 27, I discovered the white man in Africa didn’t know that the heck he was doing,” Sirolli said.
He then read a collection of essays that he says changed his perspective, called “Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered” by British economist E. F. Schumacher. The line that changed his life was this: “Above all, if people do not wish to be helped, leave them alone; this should be the first principle of aid.”
Sirolli has been following this wisdom since. Economic development, he said, flows from the ideas, the passions and the motivations of people close to us – whether it be the dishwasher who dreams of opening a catering business, or the wood-worker who wants to sell his or her widget. It does not flow easily from big ideas, like attracting industry.
It’s up to the community to cultivate the passions of its own people. Granby’s goal, Sirolli said, should be that “not one ounce of intelligence is wasted here.”
Free enterprise can be reduced to three factors: Quality of the product, the quality of marketing, and financial management. “Never a person born has had the capacity to do equally and passionately each of these three things,” Sirolli said. “In the history of the greatest entrepreneurs of the world is a history of a friend helping a friend.”
He gave examples, ranging from Apple’s Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to Henry Ford. “People only do beautifully what they love to do,” he said.
Which comes to Granby’s new framework of “enterprise facilitation.”
“In this community, anybody who wants to do anything can get free, confidential and confident help,” Sirolli said. If the widget man is passionate about designing widgets and marketing them, but has no interest in financial management, that person can seek help from Granby’s economic facilitator, who can help that individual find support in the community – perhaps through a retired accountant or banker.
A board of five people includes representatives of original investors: The Town of Granby and Granby Ranch. Granby Ranch owner Marise Cipriani, who herself is the facilitator of attracting this program to Granby, put up $65,000 to train an economic facilitator; the town budgeted $40,000 to help pay the person’s salary. The board is in the process of hiring this economic “gardner.” Meanwhile, a community board of 20 to 50 people is forming to be the support behind the facilitator. According to Sirolli, Granby is the first community in Colorado to engage in this.
These people and others, Sirolli said, will be the “paratroopers of development,” collectively helping anyone with an entrepreneurial spark in his or her heart.
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In the last nine years of working with aspiring entrepreneurs in Grand County I’ve discovered that one area where Grand County is seeing lots of activity is in the realm of arts and culture.