Go Local 2015: Asheville Grown is growing up

Play your cards well: Asheville Grown Business Alliance employees (from left) Emma Hutchens, Franzi Charen and Michele Bryan hope to "foster a more in-depth conversation" about what it means to be local. Photo by Carrie Eidson

It all began with a picture in a shop window, but as the Asheville Grown Business Alliance has developed from a poster to a loyalty card to a web of interdependent local businesses, the goal has always been, well, growth.

As the alliance embarks on the fourth year of its Go Local card — the loyalty card that offers discounts at local businesses and raises funds for Asheville City Schools — big things are underway. For the first time since its inception in 2009, the DIY marketing-campaign-turned-business-network will have actual employees to oversee its administration. With that comes a new website, full administrative control of the card-based fundraiser, increased collaboration among business owners and an inaugural conference to bring together small businesses from throughout the region.

According to its members, including founder Franzi Charen, 2015 is the year the alliance will come into its own.

A more direct connection

Go Local stems from a simple design created by Charen in 2009 — a heart and the words “Love Asheville — Go Local” — printed on a poster and hung in the window of her shop, Hip Replacements. She made the poster available to other locally owned, independent businesses in Asheville to display as well, and the little red heart became a beacon for those wanting to “shop local.”

In 2011, Charen and then co-director of the Asheville City Schools Foundation, Leah Ferguson, created the Go Local card to serve as a locally focused fundraiser for ACSF and what had become known as the Asheville Grown Business Alliance — the informal network of businesses that has sprung up around Charen’s “Love Asheville” campaign.

The card has been sold for three years now, with nearly $16,000 raised for the schools and ACSF last year alone. But this year, the alliance, formerly an all-volunteer endeavor led by Charen, hired two employees. Though they will only work part time, the pair will allow for a major shift in the Go Local campaign.

“Asheville Grown and ACSF worked together for two years on the Go Local card, and it was a lot of administrative work for ACSF,” Charen says. “But over that time period, the alliance really grew up enough [so that] now we can take that on.”

In administering Go Local, AGBA will work directly with the PTOs of each school — which Charen says will allow the schools the freedom to pick the projects the card sales will sponsor and to manage those funds directly. At Vance Elementary, Go Local sales will mean more supplies for the school’s community garden; at Claxton Elementary, it means more support for remodeling the aging media center; and at Ira B. Jones Elementary, the funds will help lower the cost of the fifth-grade class trip to Washington, D.C., ensuring all the students can afford to go.

“I’m hoping that streamlining this process will put more money directly into the kids’ hands, as opposed to paying for administrative overhead,” Charen adds. “And now that we’re running everything, we can be completely transparent and give detailed reporting of how much money was raised and where it went.”

 Michele Bryan, one of AGBA’s two new employees, will serve as the liaison between the alliance and the schools. She’s also helping the PTO members meet and learn from each other, which leads her to see another benefit in the new system. “Different schools sell the card different ways and use the money for different purposes,” she explains. “But [Go Local] brings them together to share those ideas and network with each other. It’s all about that collaboration — between the customer and the business, the business and the schools, and between the schools themselves.”

Building the network

Being local can be a powerful asset. The American Independent Business Alliance attributes the “the multiplier effect” of local, independent businesses with creating more local jobs and a stronger local economy. The organization finds that about 48 percent of the money from each purchase at an independent store goes back into the local economy, compared with less than 14 percent of purchases at chain stores.

But there are other benefits to being a local business, says Jill Sparks, executive director of the Small Business Center and Business Incubator at A-B Tech. “Tourists come here and they want to buy local,” she says. “And local people want to know where the local businesses are. I always tell my clients to leverage their local status.”

Harnessing the power of local is a key part of AGBA’s mission, says new staffer Emma Hutchens.

“Localization is incredibly important — looking at how we can build our communities, how we can rely on local resources,” she explains. “I am driven by the desire to have resource sharing, locally — sharing best practices between business owners and making sure local people feel excited about supporting Asheville just as much as tourists coming here to visit.”

In pursuit of strengthening those local resources, AGBA is aiming to host quarterly networking events, beginning in 2015, for business owners to meet, share ideas and collaborate on projects. The events would lead up to a conference planned for August called the Venture Local Fair, which will be open to independent businesses from all over the region. Charen notes that the conference will be similar to the AdvantageWest Venture Local conferences that were held in 2011-12, which focused on increasing local entrepreneurship opportunities in Western North Carolina.

AGBA is also launching a new, cross-platform website designed by Alice Oglesby of IO Designs. The site will allow customers to search businesses by category and encourage them to patronize the surrounding businesses as well.

Aside from the networking events and the website, Sparks adds that strengthening the AGBA network will provide other benefits to businesses and their employees — including reinforcing “the entrepreneur ecosystem.” Sparks defines this as the realization that local businesses are interdependent and should support each other and share ideas.

“An alliance encourages all these other service and product producers to make referrals because they want you to make referrals back to them,” Spark says. “Regardless of where you may be operating — West Asheville, South Slope or the main downtown business district — it allows people to find you.”

But ultimately, Sparks says, one of the greatest benefits of a strong business network may be the emotional support.

“Especially for folks starting out, it’s very valuable having this community,” she explains. “Oftentimes, entrepreneurs feel like they’re the only ones experiencing a particular problem. But the reality is all these other business owners have already gone through these struggles at some point.”

Follow the signs

Charen says Go Local is sometimes misconstrued as a “shopping campaign,” but the organization’s goals aren’t as narrow as getting more feet in the doors of local shops.

“It’s not about spending more,” Charen says. “We’re already pushed enough to consume, but we’re not pushed to think about how our choices impact our community.”

So while AGBA is focused on growth, Charen says, it’s about sustainable growth — growth that brings about more worker-owned businesses and more living-wage employers, and fills in gaps in regional supply chains to create a more independent economy.

“We want to foster a more in-depth conversation about what we want this community to look like 40, 50 years down the road,” Charen adds.

Part of that mission involves encouraging tourists and locals to discover “an experience that is truly unique to Asheville” by venturing out of downtown and patronizing more businesses, she notes.

“There are all these pockets of Asheville that as a visitor, or even as a local, you don’t know about,” Charen says. “I say ‘South Slope’ to locals all the time, and they say, ‘What’s down there?’”

Just as the little “Love Asheville” heart first guided shoppers through downtown, Charen hopes the posters, the Go Local directory and the new website will help customers to discover the rest of Asheville as well.

“I see this as being the masking tape that holds all this together and lightly nudges people to ‘follow the signs,’” Charen says. “You’ll see them everywhere.”

The Go Local card is a way for everyone in Asheville — residents and visitors — to engage with the work AGBA is doing, she adds, and to feel a connection to the “Local” effort.

“I would love to see every locally owned business accepting the card and every local getting the card,” Charen says. “I want it to be thought of as, ‘When in Asheville, this is what you do’ — that we’re all aware that Go Local is something we all participate in and something we all benefit from.”

For more on how Go Local funds will be used in individual Asheville City schools, check out our In the Schools series.

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About Carrie Eidson
Multimedia journalist and Green Scene editor at Mountain Xpress. Part-time Twitterer @mxenv but also reachable at ceidson@mountainx.com. Follow me @carrieeidson

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