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Thursday, July 9, 2009 05:03 pm

Making the case for ‘local first’

Independent businesses contribute color, character and cash

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Mike Murphy, owner of Charlie Parker’s Diner, and a member of the CAIBA steering committee. “Where else are you going to find a pancake the size of a pizza?” asked Mayor Tim Davlin.
PHOTO BY DAVID HINE

What can a 16-inch pancake do for Springfield?

Plenty, said a recently formed Springfield nonprofit group last week, explaining that the unique products sold by independent businesses inject color, character and money into the local economy at a time when it needs it badly.

During a July 1 press conference at Charlie Parker’s Diner (home of the 16-inch pancake), Capital Area Independent Business Alliance members kicked off Independents Week, a nationwide celebration of the independent businesses that are the backbone of local economies across the nation.

As lunch crowd stragglers finished their meals, and Charlie Parker’s staff delivered food and bused tables, the 96-seat quonset hut diner seemed an appropriate venue to tout the advantages and wonders of local independent businesses. More than 25 CAIBA members wearing colorful T-shirt’s with the group’s logo stood outside the perimeter of TV cameras in the middle of the diner, surrounded by retro rock ’n roll memorabilia on the walls.

Sangamon County Board member Rosemarie Long and Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin were on hand to officially proclaim July 1-7 “Independents Week” in the county and city. The city’s proclamation outlined the benefits of independent businesses to the community, saluted them as “integral to the unique flavor of Springfield …” and honored “their efforts to make Springfield a place we want to live and work.”

“When people talk about giving back to the community, supporting local independent businesses is one way to do it,” Davlin said. “It’s unbelievable that when you spend $100 in a restaurant, how much comes back to the community?” He answered: “Forty-five dollars if it’s local, thirteen dollars if it’s a national chain.”

Food Fantasies manager Stu Kainste: “There’s no reason not to shop local.”
PHOTOS BY DAVID HINE

The mayor also talked about the aforementioned, unusually large breakfast item. “Where else are you going to find a pancake the size of a pizza if you don’t come to Charlie Parker’s?” Davlin asked.

Mike Murphy, owner of Charlie Parker’s, said each of his diner’s 16-inch pancakes contains 24 ounces of batter. “We even have a competition: If you can eat four of them, they’re free. It’s only happened once since 1991 and that was about five weeks ago. It’s really next to impossible. We have to flip it with a pizza peel, that big flat thing they take pizzas out of the oven with.”

Another perk of an independent business? Access to the owner. “People make menu suggestions, and sometimes I add them,” said Murphy. “A guy suggested whole-grain pancakes. So I put them on the menu, and named them after him.”

A member of CAIBA’s steering committee, Murphy said he is a firm believer that if you buy local, you are making a larger positive impact on the local economy than you would buying from a national chain store. He offered this example: “We just made our first television commercial, and I used a local production company. When the national guys do their commercials, no local person benefits from the production of them. It wasn’t a huge amount of money, but we spent it locally. Now he can go in turn and buy whatever he can locally. Buying local compounds the benefit.”

Murphy said CAIBA wants to help consumers make an educated choice when it comes to spending money. “I want to make it known to consumers that shopping local is a viable option and there are benefits to dealing with us — benefits to consumers, to their neighborhoods, to their community.”

George Preckwinkle, president of Ace Hardware: “Sometimes you have to support the little guy.”

According to Stu Kainste, manager of Food Fantasies, the natural foods store, the advantages to buying from an independent business are profound. “The money gets circulated back into the community. That is critical,” said this veteran of the local co-op food movement. “If you buy at a local independent business, it’s four times more likely that money will stay in the community. With food, you can ratchet that up because you are also supporting local small farmers, getting a potentially better quality product.”

Kainste tells people that in 1950, 80 percent of the food eaten in Sangamon County was grown here. “Now it’s probably, I don’t know, maybe less than 1/100th of 1 percent.

“So, basically in my lifetime, things have totally changed. One of the things we are doing in the natural foods industry is to bring foods back to the way it used to be. It’s getting back to the old way of doing things.”

Another member of CAIBA’s steering committee, George Preckwinkle, president of Ace Hardware, a co-op, said the organization is not afraid of fair competition.

“I am not so worried about having big box chains around as competitors — and I don’t think they mind having us around as competitors. There’s a place for both,” said Preckwinkle. “But buying local is something that gets off people’s radar. So it’s good to remind them once in a while that their favorite restaurants and stores are probably local.”

Preckwinkle also stated the importance of keeping Springfield’s marketplace diverse. “Independents are … some of the guys who give Springfield its unique flavor, so that Springfield doesn’t feel like a toothpick cookie cutter that came out of somebody’s franchise agreement in New York or Los Angeles or Arkansas. Otherwise, we’re going to homogenize ourselves into the same old, same old. Character matters.”

Springfield Mayor Tim Davlin reads a proclamation for Independents Week, with Illinois Times publisher Sharon Whalen, Sangamon County Board member Rosemarie Long and Alderman Debbie Cimarossa.
PHOTO BY JOSEPH COPLEY

According to Preckwinkle, local businesses tend to give more support to local civic and charitable events; employ more people; create more stable, long-term jobs and keep their property looking nice. “That’s important. That makes the community stronger,” he said. “I am not opposed to the big guys. I just think sometimes you have to support the little guy. You have to be reminded, because the big guys can outspend the little guy on advertising.”

CAIBA member Ed Stanfield, whose father owns independent office supplier Glenn Brunk Stationers, knows firsthand the truth in that last statement. “There’s a need for people to be educated that independent, local businesses don’t necessarily sell more expensive products,” said Stanfield. “This is a great opportunity to do that.”

Stanfield said his business can often offer customers a lower price. “And we can always offer better service. The consumer has been trained by TV and radio advertising by the big chain stores that bigger is better, bigger is less expensive. I think a lot of the reason they do that is that they know they can’t compete with us on service. We don’t have the millions of dollars to spend on advertising like they do.”

Food Fantasies manager Kainste had a slightly different take on the cost savings argument. “There is no reason not to shop local. If you buy shoes, buy them from a local shoe guy. Even if it’s $2 more … which it probably isn’t. This whole big box/cheap price stuff is … well, they may have a lot of crappy stuff there that we wouldn’t be caught dead with in the same room,” Kainste said. “But by and large, when you compare apples to apples, there are no big savings by shopping at big chain stores.”

Tony Leone, owner of Pasfield House, a bed and breakfast, said the May 7 presentation in Springfield by the American Independent Business Alliance’s co-founder Jeff Milchen convinced him right away about the value of a dollar spent locally.

“When he showed me the map of all the major cities with alliances like this, it was very impressive. I understand Economics 101, about spending a dollar locally, and how it replicates itself. It’s going to keep people employed, give opportunities to other people, generate more local tax dollars. If you think smart, you are going to help the local economy by encouraging local businesses to grow.”

Although his competitors are other local bed and breakfasts, not national chains, Leone is nevertheless an active CAIBA member. “I still think this is a very important thing, to build that network of decision-makers, the owners of these independent businesses,” he said.

Leone said B&B guests often ask him to suggest a local place to patronize. “They don’t want to go someplace they can go to in St. Louis or Bloomington. They want some local flavor.”

Local small businesses raising the banner of solidarity is nothing new in the heartland of America. But today, CAIBA seems to be riding a wave of change that is taking root in cities across the nation. The group is one of more than 60 alliances helped by the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA.net), a nonprofit that helps groups across the country organize to support entrepreneurs and build vital, sustainable economies.

A recent study by Civic Economics looking at the impact of local business on the Grand Rapids, Mich., economy found that if consumers shifted 10 percent of their spending from national chains to local independent businesses there would be $140 million in new economic activity, more than 1,600 new jobs and more than $50 million in new wages.

That’s exciting news for CAIBA advocate and Illinois Times publisher Sharon Whalen, one of the primary movers in Springfield’s fledgling “local first” movement.

“We started seven weeks ago when we brought in Jeff Milchen to help us understand why local first is important,” Whalen said at the Charlie Parker’s press conference. “Within two hours of his speech I had a 17-member volunteer steering committee. Three weeks later we had 63 members and today we have 72. It’s onward and upward from here.”

When told of CAIBA’s rapid growth July 2, Milchen was impressed.

“That’s probably the most rapid growth of any new Independent Business Alliance and it certainly speaks to the competence of the organizers and the enthusiasm in Springfield,” Milchen told Illinois Times. “The business owners I met seemed eager to create a strong, uncompromised voice that truly represents their needs and concerns. The only way to do that is to create your own organization and the people who joined the May workshop clearly were serious about the commitment they made.

“While most IBAs don’t come out of the gate so fast, we’re seeing steadily increasing interest and new Alliances spreading nationwide. I think there’s been some skepticism in many places — rightfully so — as a result of ‘buy local’ campaigns that have come and gone with little impact. But independent business alliances have now proven the organizing model works, and word is getting out.”

Milchen also had some good economic news. “Well, a recession is tough for most businesses and, inevitably, some won’t survive, but independents may be weathering the storm better than chains overall,” he said. “And there’s growing evidence the work of groups like the Capital Area Independent Business Alliance is helping local entrepreneurs.”

Milchen said the U.S. Commerce Department reported that December 2008 retail sales overall were down a record 9.8 percent over December 2007. But a nationwide survey in January by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance showed independent businesses with “buy independent / buy local” campaigns supporting them had a far more modest decline in holiday sales (down 3 percent from 2007 to 2008). They also outperformed independents in cities lacking such campaigns, where reported sales dropped 5.4 percent.

“Obviously, few business owners are happy when sales go down, but these results are encouraging. Also, communities that have maintained a strong base of local independents seem to be faring much better than those that became heavily dependent on chains or other absentee-owned businesses. This is one reason we’re seeing an increasing number of cities investing in the activities of local IBAs.”

Although many of CAIBA’s efforts will be aimed at what independent businesses can do, consumers have some things to do as well, Whalen pointed out. “Every time a consumer walks out his or her door to go to lunch, to go to the hardware store, to basically do any of the services of life, each one makes a choice.”

Whalen said CAIBA is challenging consumers to consider spending at least 50 cents of every dollar at a local business. “Try local first. If you can’t find what you want there, go on down the road to the national chain. Try it for a week and you are going to feel so good when you eat, drink, shop local first. That’s our motto.”

Rick Wade is a freelance writer living in Pekin with his wife, two dogs and a recent addition, a stray white kitten. He is a Decatur native who’s worked at both religious and secular newspapers in Illinois and Colorado for 22 years. He is a graduate of Sangamon State University (UIS) in Springfield.

What’s local?

Capital Area Independent Business Alliance has been discussing what constitutes a “local” business. Here are the membership criteria they’ve come up with so far.

CAIBA was formed to support the interests and concerns of independent business operators – meaning those who do not have the support of a franchise behind them. In order to be a business member of CAIBA (with voting rights) you must be able to answer YES to each of the questions below:

Business membership criteria:

1. My business is privately held, not publicly traded.

2. The business owners, totaling greater than 50 percent of the business ownership, live in central Illinois.

3. My business is registered in Illinois, with no corporate or national headquarters outside the state.

4. My business can make independent decisions regarding the name and look of the business, as well as all business purchasing, practices and distribution.

5. My business pays all marketing, rent, and other business expenses without assistance from a corporate headquarters.

Community membership:

The CAIBA is aware that some “independent business owners” who own franchise operations will be supportive of the CAIBA cause. They are invited to join the CAIBA as community members — without voting rights but understanding that we certainly value their support.

We also welcome consumers, public officials and any other entity that values the CAIBA effort and invite each to join the organization as a community member. (Community members do not enjoy voting rights.)

This information is taken from the CAIBA Web site, www.ibuyspi.com.

Top 10 reasons to shop local first

• Local dollars multiply in the local economy.

• Independent business owners are invested in local success.

• Independent businesses foster local job creation.

• Avoid homogenizing our community.

• Help the environment.

• Nurture our community.

• Personal service, community knowledge.

• Creating fairness in tax incentives.

• Preserve entrepreneurship.

• Maximize every dollar.

Information provided by Capital Area Independent Business Alliance. To learn more about CAIBA and its members, go to www.ibuyspi.com. For more about the national buy local first movement, go to www.amiba.net, www.newrules.org, or www.buyaustin.com.

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