Preserving Maine Street: Buy Local Campaign Launches

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On July 3, at a press conference held in downtown Portland, Maine, a group of independent business owners, led by two independent booksellers, celebrated Independence Day by announcing the launch of the Portland Buy Local campaign. The goal of the campaign is to educate the residents of Portland about the importance of supporting local, independent retailers.

As in many other buy local campaigns and independent business alliances around the country, two of the key players in the Portland campaign are independent booksellers: Allan Schmid of Books, Etc., who is also president of the New England Booksellers Association, and Stuart Gerson of Longfellow Books.

Both Schmid and Gerson, whose stores are located in downtown Portland, were among the first to join the campaign and both serve on its planning committee. Portland resident Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and author of The Home Town Advantage: How to Defend Your Main Street Against Chain Stores ... and Why It Matters (ILSR), is also a member of the committee.

"Downtown Portland is unique ... there are so many independent shops, and we would like to keep it that way," said Schmid. He hopes that, rather than try to dictate to consumers where not to shop, the campaign will increase public awareness about the importance of shopping locally.

Longfellow's Gerson said that the idea for a buy local campaign had been kicked around among local business owners "on and off for the past year or so." However, he explained that it was Mary Allen Lindemann, owner of Portland's Coffee By Design and a member of Maine Businesses for Social Responsibility (a coalition that believes sustainable profitability is directly linked to acting socially responsible), who finally spearheaded the effort.

Mitchell -- who has researched and written extensively about the economic and social impact of shopping locally, and about forming local independent business alliances -- told BTW that the commitment among all participants has been tremendous.

With support from Maine Businesses for Social Responsibility, the City of Portland marketing and economic development staff, Portland's Downtown District -- as well as guidance from Mitchell -- the Buy Local campaign finally began to take shape in early 2006. The group's first meeting was in March 2006, and it has met every two weeks ever since.

While many buy local campaigns and independent business alliances form due to an immediate threat from an incoming chain, this is not the case in Portland, though the downtown does have Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts locations, Schmid said. At present, at least, most of the big box retailers are situated on the outskirts of town, according to both Gerson and Schmid.

Announcing the launch of the Portland Buy Local campaign are from left to right are: Stacy Mitchell, Allan Schmid, and Stuart Gersen (at the microphone).

"There's been a Borders here for years, but there's nothing [new] under construction," Gerson reported. "[Portland Buy Local] is about preserving and growing what we value about Portland. It's such a common experience -- you go through the shopping area on the outskirts of Portland and you blink and you could be anywhere [in the U.S.].... Portland is a delightful little city. It's nice to walk down the street and not have a Gap. There's nothing wrong with these [kinds of] shops, but they're every place. Knowing the business owners and their individual passions ... it's great. And deciding to live and have a shop here is a quality of life decision."

When the group first began meeting, members thought it would be a good idea to formally launch the campaign with a festival, but they quickly concluded that this "would have been too much," Schmid said. Instead, they decided on a press conference in early July to "celebrate Independents. Our first few meetings were devoted to ... a mission statement and fact sheet."

Considering the group's mission is to raise awareness about the importance of shopping locally, the group's press conference at Monument Square in Portland the day before the July 4th holiday was a rousing success. A local newspaper, the Portland Press Herald, picked it up, and a television station covered the event, Schmid noted. Also, on July 10, Gov. John Baldacci appeared at Longfellow's and held a press conference there where he recognized Portland Buy Local, Mitchell said.

Even at this early stage, the Portland Buy Local campaign has generated a great deal of interest from local business owners and consumers. The campaign, which began with 20 members, now boasts over 70 participating businesses and consumers, according to Mitchell.

Businesses donate $20 to join and they are provided with promotional materials, such as window decals and posters with the "Portland Buy Local" logo and "Thank You" cards for customers, as well as general informational materials. The $20 also helps the alliance pay for advertising in local media and basic administrative costs, such as the maintenance of the group's website. --David Grogan