“With Asheville’s unprecedented growth and tourist traffic, we face new challenges and opportunities,” says Franzi Charen, founder and director of Asheville Grown Business Alliance, a grassroots movement helping level the playing field for locally owned businesses.
“We want to foster a more in-depth conversation about what we want this community to look like 20 to 50 years down the road,” she explains. “We advocate for community- and placed-based economic development. We believe our city thrives with a diversity of businesses, a true ecosystem of opportunity that must grow stronger and span wider each year.”
Charen and the folks at Asheville Grown stay busy. They are currently helping convene two events this spring in collaboration with the Self-Help Credit Union to convene the second annual Bringing It Home wealth-building conference; and Mountain BizWorks and Just Economics to launch the first Workshop on Cooperative Business Models.
Asheville Grown is developing the Buncombe Community Capital Fund to invest more than $1 million locally to small, family- and minority-owned businesses — through a collaboration with The Support Center, Mountain BizWorks, the Self-Help Credit Union, the city of Asheville and Buncombe County.
Asheville Grown’s 2016 Go Local Card encourages a localist, shop-local mentality by giving cardholders access to special offers at 450 independent Buncombe County businesses. Half the proceeds of Go Local card sales go to Asheville public schools.
“As chain stores and a half-dozen hotels are moving in, we must deepen the community’s conversation around the trajectory of our downtown,” Charen says, pointing out that, of the 1,448 businesses in the 28801 ZIP code, 88 percent have fewer than 20 employees and 55 percent have one to four employees.
“Yet, there is nothing in place to protect these businesses,” she says. In response, Asheville Grown is facilitating meetings to find ways to preserve and promote downtown’s independent culture. “Our local businesses define the vitality of downtown. It would be a tragedy to lose them,” she says.
Charen champions a “maker” view of economics, which looks first at who is making the tools within a community rather than who is consuming them. She also urges planners to see the deep connection between quality public education and a thriving economy that works for all.
Asheville Grown promotes the growth of worker-owned businesses, employers who pay a living wage and are aligned with principles of collaboration and a triple bottom line of social, financial and environmental benefits. A business community that supports these values, Charen predicts, will then work to fill in gaps in regional wholesale supply chains and thus create a more collaborative and interdependent regional economy.