Global commerce begins at home

The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority’s decision to hire a company based in Orlando, Fla., to tell us how to attract more visitors to Asheville is a reminder of how easily we tend to lose sight of the bigger picture.

If we want to improve Western North Carolina’s economy, maybe each of us should intone, “Buy Local, Hire Local” several times a day. However clever or imaginative those Florida folks might be, tapping an out-of-state company to promote tourism here was a shortsighted move. Orlando is flat, flat, flat; Asheville is bumpy, bumpy, bumpy.

Besides, we already have a thriving tourism sector that’s the envy of our neighbors. And while we probably do need help figuring out how to induce county residents apprehensive about Asheville’s diversity to make more frequent forays into town, I doubt that the best folks to accomplish this are flatlanders from Orlando.

If the goal is to help Asheville businesses, then hiring one might be a good place to start. With a freshly inked contract in hand, a local firm would be in a much better position to bring dollars FROM other communities TO Asheville. Let’s get the arrows going in the right direction here.

At the very least, the TDA could have chosen an Asheville agency as the lead contractor with a subcontractor in Orlando, so that at least some of the money would stay here and help grow a business. That’s the way to develop a company with “experience and breadth of knowledge.”

As we learned in the VISION Community Dialogues in 2001, which focused on jobs and wages, “Buy Local, Hire Local” is the single most important strategy for improving our region’s economy.

The implications of this policy are many; they include:

a) Use Wal-Mart when you must; there are times when they’re the only place that has what you want. But make buying from a locally owned store that’s close to where you live your first choice — even if the item costs a few pennies more.

b) Try thinking of downtown Asheville as a mall. The shopping area is comparable in size to the Asheville Mall — just try walking from Sears to Penney’s if you don’t believe me. Fine, you say, but what about parking? Well, I’ve got news for you: The mall owners paid for those acres of pavement, and you can be sure you’re paying for that “free” parking, too, when you shop there. And sure, parking may be more convenient at the mall — if you get lucky and snare a space close to the store you’re going to. (Of course, that sometimes happens downtown, too.)

c) When we spend taxpayer dollars to create affordable housing, why don’t we use locally manufactured modular units? Some may say that there’s no local source, but that’s a circular argument: If we don’t use local suppliers, then it’s far less likely that there’ll be any. If we did use local suppliers (even if only as the primary contractor), the local modular-housing industry could prosper, and we in Asheville and Buncombe County could begin supplying not only our own needs but those of our neighbors in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina.

d) It’s a small thing, but when you eat out, consider which restaurants are locally owned and which will send their profits out of the area. The exact figures are not well established, but conventional wisdom holds that chain restaurants return about 30 cents of every dollar spent to the local economy, compared to about 70 cents for locally owned eateries.

e) I have a confession to make: I drive a car that was made in Europe. (My son has gently made me aware of this contradiction, and I guess he should have.) So my pledge is to continue to read the reviews in Consumer Reports, as I have for 40 years, and buy American — provided a reliable, nimble and environmentally friendly American automobile is available when our old car finally gives out. Fair enough?

Like it or not, our technological advances over the last several decades are producing a true global market. In some ways, this is good for all of us, but like everything else, it also has a downside — including the loss of certain types of jobs here in WNC. So while we may enjoy the advantages of being able to shop across borders, I believe we must also continually remind ourselves and our friends to “Buy Local, Hire Local.”

For my part, I pledge to think Asheville first, then Buncombe County, then WNC, then N.C., then U.S. Won’t you join me?

[Downtown activist George E. Keller is a former Asheville-Buncombe VISION board member.]

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