East Bay Express, June 11, 2014
The national campaign to create sustainable local economies is thriving as cities increasingly realize that attracting corporate chain stores is not the answer.
For the past half-century, cities throughout the nation, and especially in California, have competed fiercely with each other to attract big-box retailers and chain stores. Politicians, mindful of the sales tax revenues that these businesses can generate for local governments, have dangled a host of perks — including redevelopment funds, tax credits, and favorable zoning rules — to entice corporate giants to their cities. In recent years, however, cities like Berkeley and Oakland have begun to see what small, independent business owners have known all along — that big-box and chain stores whose primary mission is to maximize profits by paying low wages and selling cheap, environmentally unsustainable products harm local economies rather them help them, and make our cities less desirable places to live.
By contrast, communities that cultivate a true local economy based on small, independent businesses are experiencing a positive multiplier effect. Small, independent business owners typically live in the cities they serve and employ local workers. They also often pay living wages and increasingly are selling locally sourced and sustainably made goods. (That’s especially true for the local farm-to-table restaurant movement.) The dollars they generate, as a result, often end up supporting other small, local businesses, while creating jobs and generating tax revenues for cities at the same time — rather than funding massive bonuses for CEOs or padding corporate profits sheltered in tax havens (like the Cayman Islands).
“From an economic perspective, investing in local companies is the best way to get a strong local economy,” explained Leanne Krueger-Braneky, director of Fellowship and Alumni for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), a nationwide group that supports and advocates for buy local movements and is holding its national conference this week in Oakland. “There’s a much deeper economic impact when people buy local.”
Buying local is also more sustainable, especially in economic downturns. During the Great Recession, several surveys conducted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance showed that cities with active buy local or local first initiatives enjoyed more stable revenues than those that depended on corporate chain stores. They also began to experience growth more quickly during the economic recovery.
And while the buy local movement is often viewed as a progressive or liberal cause, it’s actually nonpartisan. A community that sustains itself through a vibrant local economy based on small businesses is less likely to need to raise taxes to pay for local services. And more local, sustainable jobs likely will decrease the need for social service programs.
In California, the gutting of redevelopment — a major funding tool used by municipalities to attract large retailers and other corporations — in 2011 also forced city planners to view the local economy in a new light, and to foster the growth of small businesses and commercial districts. In Oakland and other cities, local entrepreneurs have taken it upon themselves to create commercial corridors and to reestablish once-vibrant neighborhood shopping areas. Oakland’s Uptown and Temescal districts are prime examples of this movement — areas that formerly were dotted with empty or boarded-up storefronts and are now flourishing.