Be local, live local

For some, “living local” is a totally new concept. For others, it’s a memory of a time when communities had an inimitable charm, were supported by local businesses, and the skyline wasn’t a neon advertisement.

Now, campaigns to support everything local are popping up across the county in a communal attempt to turn back the clock and revitalize communities in a way that box chain stores one promised to be the wave of the future. That proverbial wave, it turns out, has swept away communities’ local retail market shares to international chain companies, resulting in a rise of “for sale” signs where the local artisan or mom-and-pop store once reigned.

“What changed in the 1960s is the presence of chain globalization. Independent retailers have lost 45 percent of market share in the last 50 years,” said Terry Garret, of Sonoma County’s GoLocal organization. Sonoma County ranked No. 1 among areas with populations between 250,000 and 1 million, in a recent study that gauged how much money people were spending at their local retail shops as compared to national chain stores. “If you lose market share, you lose sales and go out of business,” he added.

The results of the 2011 Indie City Index study by the American Booksellers Association and Civic Economics highlighted the economic surge and wealth that local retailers provide toward building a local economy. Independent businesses, it showed, bring much greater economic return to a community than their chain competitors, where most of the income from local resident purchases is goes back to the chain’s out-of-state corporate headquarters. A 179,000-square-foot Target store in New Orleans, for example, might produce $50 million in taxable revenue, but only $8 million would recirculate within the New Orleans economy. By contrast, 179,000 square feet of local merchants, or four blocks of a typical urban commercial district, could produce $105 million in taxable revenue while recirculating $33.6 million in the local economy.

But making the shift in consumer choices could be culturally difficult for many who have grown up with few alternatives.

“Generations of people think it’s always been like this,” said Garret. “Borders was not the place you bought books, or Macys for shopping, or Safeways for groceries, but people have become so acculturated that they figure this is how it always was.”

He added, “We’ve made good progress here (with local campaigns). You’re changing a system that has been established very firmly in the last 50 years.”

The Ventura-Oxnard-Thousand Oaks metropolis ranked fifth in the 2011 Indie City Index study — money spent at local retailers versus national chains — for areas with populations between 500,000 and 1 million. Last year, during the Economic Summit in the city of Ventura, civic and community leaders stressed the need to support independently owned businesses. A steering committee was formed, and a “live local” initiative was launched by announcing a Request for Proposals for a six-month marketing campaign.

Totally Local VC, which maintains a website that includes a local business directory, information about events in the community and weekly features on local businesses, was awarded a $30,000 grant, coming from the city of Ventura’s general fund; Totally Local VC is currently a for-profit business. The money will be spent on bolstering website content, putting on local events and the advertising behind that.

“The city could have done the traditional thing and [bought] ads and that kind of stuff, but that isn’t the way we wanted to go about it,” said Community Development Director Jeff Lambert. “This has a much more grass-roots feel to it, and we wanted to capture the energy of what is already happening.”

Lambert said the city will evaluate the effectiveness of the campaign when the six-month contract expires in November.

For Kat Merrick, founder of Totally Local VC, the city’s partnership and seed money for her business to run the “live local” campaign will help keep Ventura from becoming another Anywhere, USA.

“We don’t want to become some white washed cookie-cutter community that looks like we got punched out by Starbucks,” said Merrick.    

shane@vcreporter.com