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.
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.
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.
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.
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?