Why Buying Local Will Change Your Community and How Your Tax Dollars are Spent

by Katelyn Block on January 14, 2013 · 28 comments

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This week, I had the opportunity to drink coffee with Syracuse’ own coffee connoisseur, Steve Rhinehart. On Friday, I listened to the ever-evolving Chris Fowler talk Local wisdom.

First, we’ll talk about the “local” food movement. I am going be 100% honest with you guys (as always) and say: For a long time, I thought that buying local had its righteous, and albeit expensive, side. I KNOW. Don’t judge me. But I had gotten the sense that eating, buying, drinking, whatever-it-is-I-do local was uppity and hippie at the same time. I said it. Now we move on because I’ve seen the light.

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Not just because coffee is involved. Every Friday, RoundedCo. at the Tech Garden in Syracuse hosts an event, inviting people from various fields come in and talk about their area of expertise. Last week, we learned about retirement accounts (401k’s, Roth, you know the drill), and this week, we learned about local businesses from Chris Fowler. He is the owner and founder of SyracuseFirst, a non-for-profit network that believes that:

By thinking local, we can make choices that have dramatic impact on our local community, economy, and environment. Together, we can create a community that supports a thriving local economy and a healthy way of life.

Chris didn’t come in to tell us to shop at a different market, go to a different coffee place, or stop driving our cars. He explained in a very real way the impact that local businesses have on communities.

There are lots of issues in the world right now.

We have had an economic crisis, a mortgage crisis, a health crisis, and possibly even an educational crisis. There are declining graduation rates of high school students, high unemployment, and a lack of connection. The downtown areas that once united communities with events, bakeries, and community centers have become long stretches of interstate lined with chain restaurants and retailers. With all these crises, we find that there is a common tie, and search for a solution.

Chris introduced to us what he calls the “American Depression”. Not economic, but the sweeping change that led people to suburban homes, driving into their garages and shutting their doors to the outside world. An age of seclusion rose, and less and less people interact with their neighbors and support their communities. Chris wants to change the way America relates, beginning with small businesses and strengthening communities.

Nurturing Relationships and the Economy

Going back to the American Depression we talked about earlier, it has become more and more important in recent years for people to have a third place to nurture relationships. We have our homes (family), work (colleagues), and then we search for that third place. This is where coffee shops start to pop up. Community centers. Gyms (like CrossFit!). We search that third place, and this is the growth of local and, often, multinational businesses.

The economy is in downturn. Typically with businesses, we measure their success by meeting the bottom line. Covering overhead costs and profiting. Nowadays, we have a “triple bottom line” as Chris calls it. People, planet, profit. This means that you are not only meeting your bottom line, but that you are creating a better community, building relationships, and consistently exercising sustainable practices. These days, the impact you have on your community is increasingly important to your customers and other businesses. And more importantly, to the health of the economy.

We typically judge the state of our economy by the GDP. This, Chris says, is usually a terrible indicator. For example, during and after Hurricane Sandy, GDP went up. GDP is typically an indicator of how well the economy is doing, and the higher the GDP, the better the economy is supposed to be doing. Hurricane Sandy made the economy look like it was doing incredibly well, when in reality, there were thousands of people homeless, without jobs, and with a significant loss of income and savings. GDP increased only because of the increased need to purchase items to replenish those that were lost. Like numerous other statistics, this is an unreliable indicator of the health of the economy.

Chris then explained to us a new system of classification for businesses called B Corporations. This is a collective center of businesses that are a positive force in their communities, are kind to the environment, are ready to redefine success and translate ideas into action. I suggest you peruse both SyracuseFirst and BCorps websites; both are eye-opening and enjoyable to browse. Sites and organizations like BCorps and SyracuseFirst can help us to better identify small businesses and corporations, giving us the ability to purchase in a more sustainable way, and improve our communities.

Chris gave us some shocking figures.

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You may be spending the same amount of money at either place, but the difference is where the money ends up. With national and chain businesses, the money stays in your community for a little while, before it is sent right back to the national headquarters. With the dollar you spend at a local business, most of the money is retained, and stays in your area to help fortify community culture, local events, businesses supporting one another, and room for small businesses to change the landscape with innovation.

Personally, this hit hard because I am so incredibly into supporting the city where I live, fortifying community and helping small businesses grow, yet I continue to do my shopping at national chains. The two never seemed to align, whether it was a mental block to connection between them. Growing up, my Dad would always tell us that we were going to a local restaurant to support the community, and I never “got” it. I didn’t see the difference between spending money at the Chipotle next door to a Mom and Pop Mexican restaurant. There’s a huge difference, and I’m starting to understand the connections more and more.

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How does this affect me?

Quite directly, through tax money. Chris began his presentation with a story about time that he spent in Austin, Texas. He originated here, in Central New York, as well as spending time in the Capital before Austin. He noted a particular story about a place called Book People, which as you can guess, sells books. Barnes & Noble was looking to inhabit a building close by, but didn’t want to compete with Book People. Barnes & Noble tried to convince the city of Austin to subsidize them for the space, zoning, among other fees that many national chain retailers require when they move into a space.

Another shocking fact is that our tax dollars go into the square footage of chain businesses. Yes, our tax dollars subsidize these businesses for leasing space, zoning requirements, parking lots, and various other costs that local businesses don’t pay for with tax revenue. When Barnes & Noble sent in their proposal to move into the space, they sparked a movement that involved Book People commissioning against Barnes & Noble entering the neighborhood. They gave the argument that the community would be better served with local businesses because money would stay in the area. They proceeded to conduct a study and produce data that proved the notion that Austin’s money would continue to revive the area, rather than going back to corporate headquarters. The city responded to Barnes & Noble’s request by saying that they could pay leasing, zoning, and any fee just as every other business in the area must. Barnes & Noble left and forgot about that neighborhood.

Syracuse’ Piece of the Puzzle

The point about being locally-conscious is not just the impact on your wallet or on a business, but about the community. Local businesses care about the place they live and work, and they choose that place for a reason. At the beginning of his talk, Chris introduced to us why he chooses to live in Syracuse after all these years. Why he was drawn to a place that may not be booming with highly profitable businesses and zooming with wealthy families, but holds the potential for starting something new and making a big change. From the mid-seventies through the early 2000′s, Syracuse didn’t change much. Businesses were stagnant, communities remained as they were, and soon enough, Onondaga Lake went from clear waters that hydrated our city to an industrial waste deposit.

As of late, communities, business, and government have been making more of an effort to beautify and enhance the area with projects such as Armory Square, additions to the University, and the Syracuse Tech Garden. The lake is on its way to being cleansed. Supporting local businesses has become an ongoing and unifying trend that sets apart Syracuse from cities that may be in a better economic state. It has become understood that instead of trying to treat the symptoms of the problem by bringing in chain businesses for economic activity, we must address the problem itself and begin with small businesses. For the most part, small businesses in Syracuse tend to be doing well, and the idea is catching on. New businesses are popping up constantly, and the most heartwarming part of it all is when these businesses support one another and get involved in the community. The economy is slowly but surely turning around. Syracuse is emerging as a city that holds great potential to start-ups, investors, a young professional community, and families.

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Wrap-Up

I have firm belief that our economy is changing. Start-ups in every field are becoming increasingly prominent and necessary to economic growth. Positive change is being found when innovators find their calling, making things that were once new and great, new and better. Attending to every need that we didn’t once know we had, and creating a culture of creative thinkers, entrepreneurial wunderkind, and emerging leaders of the present and future.

Inspiring and motivating others to do the same; be better, solve problems, and aim to meet self-made goals. Local businesses are the start of bigger and better things, revamping communities and creating booming economies. How we choose to create and consume is changing our communities, our country, our world, and even more so, how we connect and build relationships.

How do you feel about “buying local”?
What is your view on the economy? Start-ups? Small businesses?
How do you see the landscape changing over the next 5-10 years?

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

lisa fine @ vermont vittles January 14, 2013 at 7:10 AM

Wow. Excellent piece, Katelyn. My boyfriend and I moved to Vermont in August, and a huge draw for me was the incredible ‘Go Local’ scene. I even recently learned of a Huffington Post piece that discusses Vermont as having the most locavores. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mobileweb/2012/05/08/local-food-index_n_1499379.html Love it.

But as much as I’m into local, I shop chains too, so this will really help me sit back and think about my choices.

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Katelyn Block January 19, 2013 at 6:51 PM

Thank you Lisa! Vermont is AWESOME. I spent the first 10-ish years of my life in New Hampshire and I can definitely see the prominence of the ‘Go Local’ scene every time I drive through VT. Great article! Thank you for sharing :)

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L January 14, 2013 at 9:07 AM

Lots of good points in this post. The second quote is Margaret Mead though, actually. Keep up the content like this!

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Katelyn Block January 14, 2013 at 9:27 AM

Thank you for the correction!

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Katie @ Talk Less, Say More January 14, 2013 at 9:39 AM

This is an awesome post! I want to buy local, shop local, but I do find myself going to national chains because I do assume they’ll save me money, I guess. I have been trying to open myself up to it and even work at one of our local coffee shops part time and have seen the way small, local businesses try to work together and support one another.

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Katelyn Block January 20, 2013 at 10:33 AM

Thanks lady! EXACTLY. It’s so amazing to see local businesses come together and help each other out. I’ve started making the switch to a local coffee shop instead of my beloved Starbucks, and I’ll admit — breaking up is hard to do! I’m taking it day by day :)

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Miz January 14, 2013 at 10:46 AM

IM 1000% COMMITTED TO THIS TOO.

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Katelyn Block January 20, 2013 at 10:35 AM

:) VIRTUAL AIR-FIVE lady!

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Miz January 14, 2013 at 10:47 AM

oops didnt mean to submit.
I was in austin and living in CA for some reason has only served to make me recommit.

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Katelyn Block January 20, 2013 at 10:36 AM

That’s awesome. I’ve gathered that California has an amazing way of doing this — often more “local” businesses than chains!

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Bobbi Farley January 14, 2013 at 10:50 AM

I love that you are bringing attention to this, not only are you keeping money in your community, and helping your local business stay in business but when it comes to eateries they are usually buying local foods from farmers. Meaning you are eating healthier, and helping farmers.

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Katelyn Block January 20, 2013 at 10:53 AM

Amen, lady. That’s what it’s all about!

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Molly Ritterbeck January 14, 2013 at 12:19 PM

I am reading a book right now and it has got me thinking this exact same thing. I just read this similar thing in it last night! It is funny how what we thought can change! I wish we had something that what you go to each Friday here. I really am enjoying the book I am reading and it has me very interested!

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Katelyn Block January 20, 2013 at 12:07 PM

Which book? I’d love to check it out!

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Caroline January 14, 2013 at 12:32 PM

I try to buy local whenever I can and support small businesses. I’ll be the first to admit I’m no where near perfect, but I am aware of it and make an effort. Great post I think it’s really important you’re drawing attention to this

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Katelyn Block January 20, 2013 at 12:09 PM

That’s awesome. And that’s exactly the direction I’m going in. Small steps and making an effort, even if it’s just one or two changes a week, that makes a difference, however small. Thank you lady!

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Lisa January 14, 2013 at 2:18 PM

Wow. Excellent post Katelyn! Honestly, I was kind of under the same impression you were in the beginning (well, around some aspects). This was a really eye opening post. Thank you!

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Katelyn Block January 20, 2013 at 2:16 PM

I’m so glad. Thank YOU for reading!

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Lindsay January 14, 2013 at 4:05 PM

Wow, this is great! What inspired you to do this post?

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Katelyn Block January 20, 2013 at 2:17 PM

Chris Fowler’s talk last Friday :)

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Maria D. January 14, 2013 at 4:24 PM

This was a great post! I love when people promote buying local. I’m wondering how are the farm markets in Syracuse; pretty comparable to Rochester?

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Katelyn Block January 20, 2013 at 2:21 PM

The Regional Market here is pretty good — I wouldn’t say it’s as well-established and HUGE as Rochester, but it has a great variety of local produce, meat, and other foodstuffs. I do enjoy that it’s a bit smaller and most of the vendors ARE both local and organic.

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Mary @ Lost After Losing January 14, 2013 at 6:31 PM

Totally agree. I saw Chris Fowler speak at a Dolce Vita event a couple years ago (I’m a Newhouse alum :-) and I remember having that same kind of lightbulb moment. It just makes SENSE to buy local. I hope more people start thinking that way.

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Katelyn Block January 20, 2013 at 3:50 PM

Isn’t he great?! I’d love to go there sometime. What a small world! Don’t you LOVE that lightbulb moment? It’s like WOW. There really is something I can do to make a difference.

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Miranda @ Biting Life January 18, 2013 at 6:47 PM

What a great post! You always talk about stuff that’s really relevant and interesting, that’s why you’re such a great blogger. That statistic about how many cents per dollar stays in the local economy was really eye-opening. Obviously, I assumed it was something like that, but it just goes to show you how important it is to buy local. And sometimes you don’t realize that until it slaps you right in the face like that. I really wish that I had more of a disposable income so that I could buy local. I definitely want to do things like shop farmer’s markets, be part of a CSA, and shop and Mom and Pop stores, but there’s just no way I could afford any of that right now. But I still think that it’s important to get this information out there to people who are college-age/early 20s because, even if they can’t afford it now, it’ll become important to them and they will know what to do when they eventually do have a higher income.

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Katelyn Block January 20, 2013 at 3:52 PM

Thank you! What a way to make a girl’s day! Amen. Even if it’s not realistic at that moment in time, it gets lodged in the back of your mind somewhere to remember when you do have that disposable income.

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Laura Galvan January 27, 2013 at 12:23 AM

Katelyn, thank you so much for this amazingly informative post. This really opened my eyes about how our tax dollars actually pay for corporations to move in and take essentially half of everything we spend out of the community. My company works to foster relationships within the community amongst local businesses and making people more aware of how they vote with their dollars. It is my highest hope that we would move away from larger chains and back to smaller, self-sustaining communities. I believe that we can change it! Thank you so much for your valuable insight.

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