Local First: Bellingham Passes Big Box Ban

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Late last year, results of a survey commissioned by Sustainable Connections, a local business alliance in Bellingham, Washington, indicated that residents of the city clearly understood the importance of shopping locally. This week, those results were given credence when the Bellingham City Council, at the urging of a number of local residents, groups, and activists, voted to impose a "Big Box Ban" on stores larger than 90,000 square feet, along with other restrictions.

Chuck Robinson of Village Books, a member of Sustainable Connections, told BTW that, when the organization launched its Think Local First campaign, he was confident it would take root in his community. "I knew Bellingham was good fertile ground for this kind of campaign," he said, "because everyone has this sense of community -- it's a real underlying feeling in town."

On Monday, February 12, the city counted voted 4 - 2 to ban big box retail stores and "created strict design standards for retail establishments with more than 60,000 square feet of floor space," reported the Bellingham Herald. "The [90,000-square-feet] size limit brings it below what most chain stores want in terms of size," Robinson said. "A lot of communities choose 90,000 for that reason."

Robinson noted that there were a number of factors behind the city council's decision to restrict store size. Among the key reasons for the ban, he surmised, is larger retail outlets don't fit in with the city's comprehensive plan, which calls for small urban villages scattered around the community. "The plan supports those kinds of places so you have neighborhoods ... that are pedestrian friendly," he said. "Allowing big box stores is in conflict with the current comprehensive plan." Also, big box store development brings with it environmental concerns, Robinson said, such as water run off from parking lots into the many streams and creeks in the area.

Ultimately, the demands for the size restriction came "from lots of different people," according to Robinson, including organizations such as Jobs With Justice. And it was most likely spurred by Wal-Mart's proposal to expand its current area location into a Super Store. (The Herald noted that Wal-Mart has since decided to find a location outside of Bellingham.)

The size restriction comes about two months after Sustainable Connections released a two-part study indicating that the organization's Think Local First program is impacting how local consumers and businesses shop.

The comprehensive community poll and a survey of business participants were both conducted by Applied Research Northwest (APN), an independent Whatcom County (Washington) research firm. APN's methodology for the community survey included conducting a phone poll of 300 randomly selected adults living with the city limits of Bellingham. For the business survey, APN e-mailed the 450 Sustainable Connections businesses that participated in the campaign last year.

The community poll found that local residents are not only aware of the Think Local First program and its logos, but are changing their shopping habits because of it. Among the findings of the poll, some 58 percent of Bellingham residents said that they were "more deliberate than three years ago about choosing local, independently owned businesses first"; 69 percent of Bellingham residents responded that they were familiar with the Think Local First program; and 47 percent of Bellingham residents said that they had spent more at local businesses since the program began.

"Normally, if one in five households claim familiarity with your program and change their behavior because of it, you would consider it a success," Dr. Pamela Jull, the lead researcher, said in a statement. "To have nearly three in five households attributing a behavior change to this program shows an amazing impact."

As for the Think Local First business participants, they also reported that their customers are thinking local first more often, and that the program is responsible for their own increased local business purchases. And 92 percent would recommend the program to other businesses in their industry.

Overall, Robinson said he was "very impressed" by the results of the survey, though perhaps not surprised. "We knew from talking to people in town," he said, noting that everyday he hears from someone who is shopping at a particular store because it's local. The program is raising awareness among residents. "I'm very pleased." --David Grogan