I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Local First Puts Local... First

 How the People Learned to Bail Out the Michigan Economy Themselves
The Needs of Local Businesses Outweigh the Needs of the Chain, or the Internet
Spock, paraphrased 

Elissa Hillary heads Local First, a Grand Rapids-based organization started in 2003 by Guy Bazzani in order to boost consumer support of local businesses. She was interviewed on a September 4 segment of "Stateside" on Michigan Radio.

She painted a picture of what greater Grand Rapids might look like if people thought to shop first and foremost at local businesses rather than national and international chains. When people shop at small nearby businesses, a whopping 73% more money stays in the community. Why should this matter? When that money stays in the community, it creates jobs, and helps fund things like schools and road repair. In a state where it seems like every main road is replaced each summer and there are multiple school districts under state emergency control, there should be no more clear solution than to shop locally.

Hillary says that if people make a small change in their buying habits, it can make a big impact. She cited a study done by Civic Economics claiming that if everyone in Kent County were to shift one in ten dollars that they would already be spending - we are not talking about buying anything more than you already do - the impact would be $140 million more dollars in the area and 1600 more jobs. Imagine the possibilities were the average Michigander willing to spend twice or three times that much locally.

Meijer is a regional grocery chain that has been
operating out of Grand Rapids, Michigan since
1934 and many of their products are local.
One thing that people often trip over on the way to shopping locally is the belief that chain stores are more convenient, providing a wider selection of products at cheaper prices. Hillary says that this is not necessarily the truth, at least not in all cases, but chain stores have a tendency to spend so much more money in marketing in order to make you believe that they are a better choice that it is hard to see through to the local store. Where does this enormous marketing budget come from? The consumer, of course - you and me and all our neighbors.

The internet provides another stumbling block, and this is particularly depressing, because unless you are ordering from a local business 100% of the proceeds from your purchase leave your community. Hillary suggests that when we view our expenses we shift from looking at price and start looking at cost. While the sticker price of a product or service from a chain or internet source might be lower than that of a local business, the cost to the community is egregious. Money leaving the community leads to stores closing and jobs leaving the community which leads to a reduction in government tax income - which you know they'll take from somewhere else. For Hillary, every dollar you spend is a vote, so if you spend your money at a local business, you are voting for that local community and the success of your community.

Grand Rapids has always been very entrepreneurial, and in the last decade or so it is a mecca for start-up businesses. When I moved out of state several years ago, I remember going to all of these interesting places and thinking: Grand Rapids doesn't have cool bars or restaurants; Grand Rapids is boring. When I moved back a couple years ago, everything had changed. It was like going from black-and-white to technicolor.

My future father-in-law Cliff Yankovich has been writing about this kind of stuff for at least as long as I've known him on his blog called Cliff's Riffs. I would be lying if I said I had any earlier influence on this subject than his writings and the life he leads. In 2009, he challenged his readers to spend $10 a week locally if we wanted an extra $36 million in the state economy and he subsequently provided example after example on how easy it is. Because he is connected to two local businesses, he's written articles on "the impact of doing small (micro) business" and "the net effect of doing business with a local shop." Cliff is telling the same story as Local First - people need to start thinking about where their money is going.

Visit Local First at their web site. After you're done learning about this community support group, buy a local coffee or ice cream cone. It is so easy, you'll kick yourself for not starting earlier.

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