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LocalThe BIG Blog

Localist Lessons, Learned

By June 6, 2016February 12th, 2021No Comments

The summer of 2006 I made a leap into a new career from a railroad marketing director to executive director of a nonprofit focused on growing community local economies through the support of locally owned independent businesses. I knew next to nothing when I started this work except that I was passionate about it.

But, I had some data to get me started: 13 cents vs 68 cents spent at Big Box chain stores versus money spent at locally owned businesses is the different between money that leaves our community or stays in our community. And, I knew about the “multiplier effect” – how a dollar spent locally can multiply several times as it stays in our local economy for tax revenue, wages, and local vendors. It changes hands many times, creating greater impact for our neighbors and family owned businesses. I didn’t know a lot of other things or how I’d eventually come to be a Localist. Over ten years and thousands of hours of conversations and strategies, here’s what I’ve learned:

Policies matter. Old policies that are outdated for locally owned businesses, or a new generation of businesses like social enterprises won’t help our local economies grow. Our elected officials and government leaders need to review policy to make sure our communities can support locally owned businesses for tax incentives, and fair wage laws so they can actively be stronger businesses in our economic eco-system. Giving tax incentives to out of town corporations for relocation packages sends a message that our locally owned businesses don’t count. We need to collect online retail sales tax so our locally owned businesses don’t pay the price when Big Box online retailers don’t. We need to close tax loopholes that support corporate taxes heading out of state. These policies are all over the US, from local legislation to state laws. Time to change policy so that local matters most.

Farmers are farmers. Many of them aren’t interested in being in the business of doing business. They are interested in growing your delicious food and making money. Therefore, be patient with them. Show a farmer a market where they can make money and they will supply to it, was a lesson I learned in growing the local food system. But, they need to know what to grow, and how much. Farmers markets are a great avenue for farmers but many are ready to branch out to wholesale markets or getting into value-added products (the jars and packaged things you see on shelves.) They need guidance to make it all happen and sustain a decent living. Most farmers are over 60, especially in New Mexico, and would love nothing more than to teach a new generation to grow food sustainably but they know first hand how hard the farming life really is. Ask a farmer for their story. You’ll learn how to be Localist, too.

Matchmaking is key. When a restaurant chef or owner came to me with a question about where to find squash blossoms in abundance in season for his menu, I dug up every farmer number I could find. When a local manufacturer called for where to find a certain item, I went on a search for suppliers. Matchmaking local sourcing opportunities is how we can be better together for business to business sourcing that supports our local economy and keeps more money in our cities and towns, even creating new opportunities for businesses to fill gaps in sourcing.

Be a player. Play the game, get cozy with your Chamber of Commerce or other business groups and know how they operate so you can stand for what they won’t. All those dozens of business trade meetings and events weren’t all for naught. I learned what organizations and committees supported legislation that would be bad for local businesses, and I learned where to find the most influential business members in town. Not every local or regional Chamber of Commerce or business trade organization is against your localism efforts, but many are bad for local business. Know what you are up against and where they stand so you can stand up for local.

Love local, be local, know local. When I talk about loving local, I mean love your place, fiercely. All of its quirks, interesting nooks and crannies are local, and they should be supported through every effort to make them last. That off-the-beaten-path neighborhood you never go to is local. Loving your place doesn’t mean just supporting the newest hipster artisan cheese shop or craft beers or next new tapas-style taco truck. Local has been here for generations. When a local business shuts its doors because a chain store moved in, my heart breaks a little, and I feel for the family who has to shutter its long-time business. We can do better. Supporting local means going out of your way to find things that you might find in one stop at a Big Box shop but every time you open that wallet, what message are you sending your town for a dollar saved?

Local is social enterprise. In recent years, I’ve come to believe strongly that locally owned businesses by their very nature of being local – paying better wages, providing health care and better benefits, sourcing from their own neighbors’ businesses, keeping money in our town – are actually social enterprises. They think about people, the planet, and their profit equally, sometimes deeply rooted in communities and neighborhoods for generations. These are the places where summer jobs turn into learning experiences and eventually careers for local teens, or where a single mom gets back into the workforce to get a new start. This is where local food gets delivered to the back door of a restaurant with a smile, a handshake, and cash that goes back home to that farmer’s family. These are the businesses that put more money into our local nonprofits per dollar than Big Box stores with donations of goods, services, sponsorships. They also volunteer more hours than most corporations, participating in events, on boards, and committees. This is social capital. It is what keeps our communities strong. This is social enterprise, redefined.

Local is not the hot new topic on Main Street anymore. It is the topic. THE answer. And, Localists are here to make sure it endures. Here’s to another ten years of Localist lessons ahead.