Buy Local campaigns have been around for years but have become more talked about as the economic downturn has affected thousands of small businesses. It’s not hard to see why: small businesses — important to our economy, employment base and neighborhoods — are hurting financially, and don’t have deep enough pockets to ride out the storm. Many are disappearing from the landscape, and with them, the unique character they bring to the people they serve.

There are dozens of nonprofit organizations across America that exist to help independent merchants survive and thrive against their three biggest threats: Large chain stores, the Internet and an unknowing public. Chain stores are held up as examples of what’s bad in America — big boxes with low-wage workers selling cheap products made who knows where. It’s the low prices and wide selection that draw shoppers. When profits are made, it’s said that these stores send the money back to headquarters or shareholders.

Over the past decade, sales online have exploded, making most retail items available to anyone with a credit card and an Internet connection. Next-day delivery, no sales tax and incredible selection make online shopping especially attractive. To make themselves ultra competitive, online companies have warehouses in low-rent areas worldwide to help them turn a profit.

And then there’s the consumer, who’s never before had such selection and low prices.

Some will even go to a local retailer to touch and feel a product, then jump online to make their purchase and save a few dollars.

What the Buy Local campaigns aim to do, in large part, is educate consumers about how their purchasing dollars can make a difference. Buy a cheap product, and expect it to have a short lifespan. Buy from out of state, and our local schools and infrastructure suffer from lack of tax revenue. Buy from a big box, and watch your neighbor close up shop. These are all good reasons to think before we spend.

The city of Ventura may be the first in the county to address this in a formal way. Having already held several meetings with locals, and now requesting proposals for someone to oversee a city-sponsored Live Local campaign, Ventura is moving forward with this because city officials realize it will be difficult to attract large employers anytime soon, though they want to see economic growth.

And with this discussion come differing opinions (see accompanying letters). What is a small business? What, exactly, defines a “local” business? These and other questions are part of the ongoing debate, and it’s important to continue the conversation so that more people understand what’s at stake. We’ll be keeping an eye on this as it develops.

The city of Ventura has been holding meetings to help revitalize retail sales. The idea was to create some sort of effort to capture the spirit of the city and to develop a buy local campaign.

The city is scrambling to shore up its local businesses that up to now have been largely ignored and taken for granted.

The question in my mind, other than the obvious, is why now and why so late in the game?

Having attended some of these meetings, the attendees from the city seem unsure why they’re even there or what, if anything, they’re supposed to accomplish, other than [creating] a slogan.

I don’t know what it is about the city’s operational culture, but taking action this late in the game says a lot to me about a city’s priorities. Similar to the city of Bell, it seems more intent on balancing the city’s woes on the backs of its citizens and paying for and preserving their own jobs.

All across the country, there are buy local programs that cities and businesses have embraced that have been wildly successful. Shopping local, and buying from independents that are locally owned and operated, has shown that cities can assist their retailers and preserve their own uniqueness in the process. Dollars that are generated locally stay local and reverberate throughout the community. Profits that are generated by chains go only one way: out.

Chains are a necessary part of the equation, but instead of cities prostituting themselves and subsidizing them with giveaways, the alternative is having a healthy retail base that makes a city successful. Besides, in my mind chains are much like invasive species that contaminate the environment because of their predatory pricing and cannibalistic nature. But, again, I am not naive, as I say they are a necessary evil; and in these times, money is hard to come by.

I think that Ventura lacks a competitive spirit, and it’s not the citizens that are to blame. It is the city of Ventura’s structure. One remedy would be to get rid of the off-year election cycle so that, with more people going to the polls, there would be more interest and more turnout.

The other change I would like to see is having the mayor voted in by the public instead of the way it’s done now. The city manager basically has a rubber stamp and can call the shots, stacking the council any way necessary to be able to run the city for his/her benefit. 

I am presently working with a group of people to do this; meetings are the third Tuesday of the month, at 5:15 p.m., Foster Library, in the Topping room. Interested parties are welcome.

Jim Salzer, Ventura

Ventura, like many similar communities, has grown and prospered in large part because of our small, locally-owned independent businesses. During this economic downturn, the city has begun focusing even more of our limited resources on business development. For many years, our Economic Development Division has offered programs designed specifically to meet the needs of local businesses such as low-interest loans and an ombudsmen program, among others.

Nationally, the shop local movement continues to grow, and Ventura is onboard. With our partners: the Ventura Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Ventura Organization and the Ventura Visitors and Convention Bureau, the city is developing a comprehensive “Live Local” campaign designed to educate consumers, showcase our local businesses and create dialogue around the vital issue of sustainability. We have aggressively sought out all the various grass roots local parties working on business development to form a steering committee that meets every other week.

We have learned from other cities that the best shop local campaigns are organic and community-driven. Our goal from the beginning has been to collaborate and convene rather than dictate the terms of Ventura’s campaign. We are currently reviewing proposals to build a comprehensive program that will focus not just on supporting local business but building a sustainable, green local economy. We are indeed making changes to improve Ventura as Jim notes and invite the public to be active participants in the process.

Jeffrey Lambert
City of Ventura, Community Development Department