Sticking close to home

In a town full of artists, environmentalists and entrepreneurs, localism may not seem like such big news. But what may be new in Asheville is a deepening awareness of how a strong local economy can preserve the social and political fabric through the worst recession in decades.

Truly local: "Do you want a world that is nothing but big-box stores?" asks Claire Reeder, co-owner of local art-supply business True Blue. Photo courtesy of True Blue

One example of an intensified commitment to localism is Asheville Grown, a campaign to boost sales during the 2009 holiday season that has morphed into a permanent coalition of local businesses. The Asheville Grown Business Alliance aims to "shift the shopping default to a locally owned, independent provider," director Franzi Charen explains, in order to help "maintain the unique character and diversity of the city." The local group recently joined the American Independent Business Alliance, a national network with 70 affiliates in small communities and major cities across the country.

Although the original campaign was Charen's brainchild, the new organization grew out of another local business group, the Lexington Avenue Merchants Association. Charen co-owns Hip Replacements on Lexington, one of 26 shops under the LAMA umbrella. The fledgling Asheville Grown is now forming a steering committee to create bylaws and other requisite organizational components.

Caroline Green, a children's book buyer and community-events coordinator at Malaprop's Bookstore/Café, would like to see the buy-local campaign spread beyond the city limits. "We could have a Weaverville Grown or a Waynesville Grown," she notes. Such campaigns are especially helpful during a recession, says Green. "In the short term, the impact will be on businesses, which recognize that collaboration and teamwork can help us. Businesses see they're a part of something larger — part of the community — and if one does better, we all do better." And in the bigger picture, these campaigns also benefit consumers, she maintains, helping preserve the community's character while keeping dollars circulating locally.

Walking the talk

"We are not about competition but about quality; we are not about cheapening our lives or the lives of our customers," asserts Malaprop's co-owner Emoke B'Racz. "In a community, you have to feed the roots for the tree to survive — by participating in the community, by shopping locally and by maintaining a standard that is preferred by customers."

Accordingly, the business buys its pastries from local bakeries, has its coffee finished by local roasters and gets its paper products from Hoyle Office Solutions.

Another alliance supporter, True Blue Art Supply, buys its office supplies at the nearby Grove Arcade Copy Shop and cleaning products at the Asheville Discount Pharmacy around the corner on Patton Avenue.

"As a small-business person, it drives me crazy when someone says, 'I can get that at a big box,'" notes co-owner Claire Reeder, asking, "Do you want a world that is nothing but big-box stores?" She also supports local artists (many of whom get their supplies at True Blue) by featuring new talent each month in the store's newsletter and on its Web site and Facebook page.

Before getting involved in Asheville's buy-local campaign, Reeder was promoting The 3/50 Project, whose stated mission is "saving the brick-and-mortars our nation is built on." Drawing on a study done by the consulting firm Civic Economics, The 3/50 Project urges people to spend $50 a month spread among three local businesses.

The study found that $100 spent in independent stores in a Chicago neighborhood generated an additional $68 in local economic activity; for the same amount spent in national chains, the figure was $43.

That's because local businesses buy more goods and services locally, have a higher percentage of local employees and donate proportionally more to local charities, Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance explains.

Here in Asheville, small businesses play a major role in the economy. According to 2007 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, 98 percent (12,018) of Asheville-area businesses had fewer than 100 employees, and 56 percent (6,799) employed one to four people.

Two of the city's bigger employers, Mission Hospital and UNCA, say they want to support small, local businesses as much as possible. Mission, for example, is an associate member of the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association, reports Janet Moore, director of community relations and marketing. The hospital, she notes, also supports the 100-mile diet. And at UNCA, 15 percent of food purchases for the dining hall must pass the 100-mile muster, according to Merianne Epstein of UNCA News Services.

A do-it-yourself recovery

Meanwhile, the down economy hasn't put a damper on aspiring entrepreneurs. Last year, Mountain BizWorks helped shepherd 164 startups in 12 Western North Carolina counties, compared with 159 in 2008, notes staffer Rachel Miller. "We've had an increased interest in our services over the last 18 months," she reports. "Since people can't find a job elsewhere, they're pursuing the idea of starting their own businesses."

It's difficult to get hard data on how many cities and communities nationwide have robust buy-local initiatives, says Douglas Bachtel, a demographer at the University of Georgia's College of Family and Consumer Sciences. And such campaigns, he cautions, can be shallow if they don't nurture entrepreneurship and creativity or seek to diversify a local economy.

Manufacturing must also remain a piece of the puzzle, maintains Mitchell, co-author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses. "One of the consequences of the consolidation of big-box retailers over the last 25 years is that lots of manufacturing has been shifted overseas and put in the hands of large, global organizations that subcontract to low-wage factories," she explains. One way to fight outsourcing, she notes, is to support local businesses and buy products made or grown close to home.

Over at Firestorm Café and Books, worker-owners have been experimenting with workplace democracy since 2008, and Scott Evans is excited about both a broader model of localism and the surge of interest in Asheville Grown. "The buy-local movement on the ground in Asheville fits our larger philosophical worldview, not just on the economic level but also on the political and social level," he explains. "Localism is an important component of the social-justice movement or looking for changes in society, because when you localize power you have an opportunity to address the inequities of power."

Working for broader change

In cases where it's just not possible to buy locally, says Evans, using a local distributor is the next best thing. Ultimately, though, a deeper localism will seek to bring manufacturing back to the region and support whatever manufacturing is emerging, he maintains.

One group that's working toward these goals is the Asheville-based Center for Participatory Change. "One of its focal points is to establish locally owned businesses in Latino communities along cooperative lines," notes Evans. In the last two years, the center has helped set up a half-dozen cooperatives in Western North Carolina, including factories making stuffed animals and tortillas and a pair of cleaning businesses.

Like the rest of the country, Asheville finds itself at a crossroads. But for those who believe that smaller and closer to home are better, this crisis could spell opportunity.

The Asheville Grown Business Alliance is at 72 N. Lexington Ave. (216-3909). The Center for Participatory Change is at 34 Wall St. (232-2049).

[Freelance writer and teacher Maryellen Lo Bosco lives in Asheville.]

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