Strength in numbers: Go Local looks to expand

TEAM GO LOCAL: From left, Michele Bryan, Caroline Christopolous, Franzi Charen and Emma Hutchens lead the way in advocating for a strong, independent and locally owned business community in Asheville and Buncombe County. Photo by Cindy Kunst

When the first Go Local Card was issued in February 2012, it offered cardholders discounts and freebies to 120 locally owned businesses. Today that number has nearly quadrupled, with 470 shops, restaurants, breweries and professional services signed on.

Greater participation and visibility remain key priorities for the 2019 Go Local Card campaign.

For card manager Michele Bryan, the goal for 2019 is 600 total participating businesses. The reason is simple. There is strength in numbers. “The more businesses we have on the card, the more appealing it is to the public,” she explains. And a broader appeal, she believes, will increase Go Local card sales, resulting in a higher total amount earned for Asheville City Schools, which receives 50 percent of those sales.

There is no fee for business owners to sign up, says Franzi Charen, founder of Asheville Grown Business Alliance, which produces the card each year. The only requirement is that locally owned, independent shops honor the card with hand-selected special offers.

In addition to getting more businesses to sign on, Asheville Grown Business Alliance also continues to explore ways of connecting the area’s youth with entrepreneurs. It partners with and encourages businesses to sponsor young people in the workplace and makes in-class presentations to convey the important and essential role of a strong local economy to today’s students. “We want to make sure that these children have opportunities to stay here and to thrive,” says Charen.

Charen sees Asheville’s youth as a critical component in maintaining the area’s rich culture and unique vibe. But today’s students, she says, must have the incentive and opportunity to become the city’s future business leaders. “When business owners live here and their kids go to school here, they’re more invested in local issues,” she explains. “They’re driving the roads here and going to the parks, so local initiatives are more important to them.”

Conversely, Charen considers the influx of absentee ownership as one of the greatest threats to Asheville’s future. She believes those owners’ interests are strictly economical. “They’re not concerned about our culture, environment and public schools,” she says.

To curtail this risk, Asheville Grown, in partnership with the city of Asheville, the Asheville Downtown Association, the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association and Lexington Avenue merchants recently launched the city’s first downtown business census. The results of the survey, says Charen, show that 86 percent of respondents strongly prefer to see fewer chain stores in downtown.

The survey also revealed a slew of other concerns among owners, including the need for more health care options for employees, rising rents and lack of affordable housing. Charen views the census as “a powerful tool that arms us and other advocacy organizations with real numbers that help us fight for a stronger local economy.”

In addition to the census, Asheville Grown helped launch the inaugural 2018 Love Asheville Go Local Week, which took place during the week of Valentine’s Day. Ten downtown banners announced the celebration, officially recognized by the city, which also included a yarn bombing by Purl’s Yarn Emporium, special offers by dozens of local businesses and 3,000 hours of free parking.

Moving forward, Charen says the 2019 weeklong Valentine’s Day bash will continue as an annual celebration to help spotlight local businesses. When people shop locally, she notes, everyone comes out ahead. “Three times more money gets circulated back into the local economy when you work with local businesses,” she says. “I also think locally owned businesses are much more sensitive to what the local culture wants.”

At press time, City Council is planning to build on its previous support by declaring December to be Love Asheville, Buy Local Month, according to Mayor Esther Manheimer. In the official declaration, Manheimer notes, “Studies show that those who live in communities where local, independent businesses are the norm are healthier — and thus happier…”

To help garner additional support and to generate greater visibility, Asheville Grown has also created a volunteer steering committee. Bryan says committee members are reaching out to their favorite shops and restaurants, encouraging owners to join the Go Local network. Meanwhile, the committee also urges cardholders to voice their appreciation to businesses that do accept the card. This overall support, Bryan notes, helps fuel a strong, local economy.

The theme of strength played a deciding factor in the 2019 card design. Once again, Asheville Grown commissioned local artist Jenny Greer Fares of Sound Mind Creative to create this year’s image of a black bear, which will replace last year’s winged lion-gargoyle.

“Bears are a symbol of strength, power and protection,” says Charen. The animal is also among the area’s original locals, she points out. “They’ve been here a lot longer than we have, which is part of the idea for this campaign,” Charen explains. “It’s not just about surviving, but also about how to live in a community and respect not only each other but our environment.”

Bryan adds that the black bear exudes an innate sense of self-confidence and self-reliance, which she connects to the campaign’s mission of a self-sustaining local economy. “Our card sales have grown every single year,” she says. “Which means more and more people are buying the card, learning about the card and learning about the local economy.

“I feel like our vision, dream and goal would be for every local, independent business to be on the card,” Bryan continues. “That’s a huge, lofty goal, but that’s the direction we’re working toward.” The Go Local Card, she adds, “is a tool to bring people’s attention to our mission and to educate them about the importance of a strong local economy.”

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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