The year 1987 is one that most residents of Littleton, Colo., would rather forget. Their town’s largest employer, Martin Marietta, eliminated 7,000 jobs—half the company’s local workforce and about 20 percent of the town’s population. By year’s end, more than 1 million square feet of retail and office space sat vacant.

Many towns would have taken the usual cure: attract another big corporation to the area. But Chris Gibbons, Littleton’s newly hired director of business/industry affairs, was...

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