Wi11: Bringing the Localism Movement to the Next Level

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On Tuesday, January 26, at the Winter Institute in Denver, the panel discussion “The New Localism” brought together experts and thought leaders on local economies for a discussion about the next phase in the localism movement. The session featured Matt Cunningham and Dan Houston of Civic Economics; Joe Minicozzi, principal for Urban3 in Ashville, North Carolina; and Stacy Mitchell, co-director for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Portland, Maine. The panel discussion was moderated by American Booksellers Association CEO Oren Teicher.

“We want to be clear, there is nothing wrong with the existing localism movement,” Teicher said, “but we do think there is a point where you need to move the [localism] discussion to a new level.” That point, the panelists agreed, is here, where localism needs to evolve from public discourse to public policy.

The first phase of the localism movement, the “mostly educational phase,” made great strides in educating the public and public officials about the value and importance of supporting local businesses, said Cunningham. But now, when a growing number of politicians are saying they support local, independent businesses, the important goal is to get them to actually back those words up. “The second phase is a little more ‘rubber hitting the road,’” he said, “and that is convincing public officials to actually make substantial changes to public policy.”

Houston noted how, in Tulsa, Oklahoma — “about the least progressive place you will ever go” — a small business owner who was elected to the city council has been able to help initiate major changes because “he is able to explain why downtown matters.”

Mitchell said that the localism movement has had a “profound impact” over the past 10 years, but today there is an opportunity to transform what has largely been a consumer movement into a political movement. She noted that there is a growing popular movement that has been spurred on by people who are hurting economically. Couple that with the continued consolidation of businesses into giant corporations, as well as growing income inequality, and there is now an opportunity to make the case that smaller is better, Mitchell said. “Studies have found that countries where small and mid-size companies maintained market share had not seen anywhere near the level of income inequality you see” in communities where that is not the case.

Unfortunately, changing public policy to help grow the localism movement often includes subject matter that is not very sexy, Minicozzi said, joking that bringing up issues like parking and zoning with someone at a party will likely end the conversation.  So the challenge becomes how to discuss these technical issues in a way that “people absorb it. You need to find a way to communicate it,” he said.

Fortunately, there are a number of places that can serve as models of how to bring the shop local movement to the next level. Asheville, North Carolina, where Minicozzi resides, is one such example. Changing regulations in Asheville was a non-starter, he said, so proponents of indie businesses took the educational route, hanging informational signs that both promoted the localism movement and explained why it was important to support independent businesses.  “People are policy-resistant in our town so we did it with guilt,” Minicozzi said.

Mitchell noted that there are many examples of communities that brought the movement to the next level in different ways. Last year, in northeast Minneapolis, a group of several hundred neighbors pooled their money and formed a real estate co-operative that bought “the kind of Main Street buildings that … had just been sitting empty” in the neighborhood, she said. “And they then worked with local entrepreneurs and redeveloped those buildings into all these indie business that serve the neighborhood, and all those local entrepreneurs are part of the co-op themselves…. So they have an ownership stake in the property.” That success story went viral, she added, and now there are a half dozen places where something similar is occurring.

“When you look at places that are thriving, the emphasis is on what is different about the community,” Houston said. “Finding ways to capitalize on what makes your place different is really valuable.”

The localism movement has provided ways for communities to do just that. Mitchell noted that, according to early results from the 2016 Independent Business Survey, conducted by ILSR and the Advocates for Independent Business (AIB), almost all of the respondents in towns with Buy Local groups said that the existence of the group had a positive impact on their businesses. Moreover, close to 80 percent of bookseller respondents reported sales growth over the previous year. (See this week’s related story.)

Teicher then directed session attendees to the groundbreaking new Civic Economics study, “Amazon and Empty Storefronts,” released on Monday at the Winter Institute. The study, commissioned by ABA, details the overall negative impact that Amazon has had on Main Street retailers, jobs, and the communities across the country in which they are located. Cunningham said that the most compelling aspect of the study was how Amazon’s growth was resulting in the Main Street retail sector being replaced by distribution centers — a transformation that is neither fiscally nor aesthetically good for a community. “And Amazon is still only the eighth largest retailer,” he said, so, as the online giant grows, this negative impact is “compounded every year.”

Minicozzi said it is important to stress to public officials that while a retail store on a Main Street will have a “spin-off [positive economic] effect,” where, for instance, a bookstore customer may stop into a coffee shop after shopping, a distribution center will not do that. “Amazon is zero tax production.”

In summing up, Mitchell said an important next step would be to re-examine conventional economic wisdom, such as the belief that the bigger the business, the better it is for a community. She pointed to a 1963 law in North Dakota that stipulates that only pharmacists can own pharmacies. As a result, the state only has independent pharmacies and there have been a number of positive public health benefits, including more pharmacies per capita and drug prices that among the lowest in the country. “It’s not that indies can’t compete, it’s that the game is rigged,” she said. “So we need to get rid of this assumption that bigger is better. That is just not the case.”

To help booksellers build on the momentum of the local first movement, ABA is developing the education session “Indie Bookstores and the New Localism: What You Can Do” for its spring 2016 Booksellers Forums as well as an action kit that will help booksellers understand the implications of the new Civic Economics study, “Amazon & Empty Storefronts.” The kit will provide resources and data that will empower booksellers to communicate the “new” localism message to colleagues, customers, community members, elected officials, and the media.

Also watch for ABA to release a video of the Wi11 “New Localism” session in the coming weeks.