Three years ago, after learning that Borders Books & Music planned to open an outlet in Corvallis, Oregon, Jack Wolcott, who has owned a local bookstore, Grass Roots Books & Music, for more than thirty years, contacted Bob Baird of The Book Bin and several other local business owners whose stores were likely to be affected by the chain. They began meeting, at first discussing a possible legal challenge to Borders and ultimately deciding instead to organize local businesses and launch a public education effort.
“It was too late to keep them out, but we could influence what kind of environment they opened in,” Wolcott said. By engaging the community in a discussion about the value of independent, locally owned businesses, Wolcott and the other merchants hoped they could blunt the impact of Borders and counter national chains’ growing interest in opening outlets in Corvallis, a city of 50,000 people about 90 miles south of Portland.
To test public reaction and gauge interest from other business owners, the group invited Jennifer Rockne and Jeff Milchen, co-directors of the Boulder (Colorado) Independent Business Alliance (who went on to found and now direct the American Independent Business Alliance), to host a public forum and workshop. The event drew more than 125 enthusiastic residents and business owners and catalyzed the formation of the Corvallis Independent Business Alliance (CIBA).
Following the forum, a core group representing fifteen businesses—including the bookstores, a local bank, hardware store, plant nursery, food co-op, insurance agency, and toy store—met weekly to develop an organizational plan. CIBA was officially launched in early 2002.
Today, the association has 85 members, including many well-respected, multi-generation businesses. They encompass a wide range of goods and services, from Rice’s Pharmacy to A&S Accounting. Dues are $100-$150 a year, depending on the size of the business.
“We’ve stayed a positive, education-based organization,” said Wolcott, explaining that CIBA emphasizes that the community has a choice and that the growth of chains is not inevitable. “[Local merchants] are passionate about business. We can’t imagine doing anything else. We’ll keep doing it as long as we can,” Wolcott says. “But consumers have to recognize that they have a choice. We will not be here if they stop supporting us. They have to choose what kind of community they want, what kind of community they’ll pass on to their children.”
CIBA gets its message out through half-page newspaper advertisements that explain what the alliance is and encourage people to look for the CIBA logo on storefronts when they shop, as well as a directory of independent businesses, which is available for free from every CIBA member and is sprinkled with messages about the value of locally owned stores.
CIBA also contributes a monthly column, at the invitation of the business editor, to the Corvallis Gazette-Times. The column, written by Wolcott, gives CIBA an opportunity to expand on its core message and tackle complex issues. A recent column, for example, made the case for growing the local economy from within by identifying unmet local needs and helping existing business expand, rather than bringing in absentee-owned firms.
Local business owners say CIBA’s work has strengthened their customer base and generated a lively public discussion about chain store development. Hundreds of citizens turned out recently for hearings on two proposals to develop big box home improvement stores. Many gave detailed and well-informed comments about the impact of large-scale chains. One of the proposals, for a Home Depot, has been rejected by the planning commission, but the other, likely to be a Lowe’s, has been approved because the city’s existing zoning allows for big box development at that site.
CIBA has begun forging a working relationship with elected officials and city government. One of its long-term goals is to advocate for policies that support independent, local businesses.
In addition to its public education campaign, one of CIBA’s top priorities is to help its members strengthen their own businesses. “Just getting together and discussing common challenges and sharing ideas has been very beneficial,” notes Bonnie Helpenstell, owner of Home Grown Gardens and a founding member of CIBA. She says a growing number of CIBA members are providing discounts and promotional help to one another.
Another outcome of CIBA’s formation, according to Helpenstell, is that the Chamber of Commerce, which had not been responsive to the concerns of in dependent businesses, is sponsoring more programs aimed at helping local enterprises. The Chamber is also working with CIBA and the Downtown Corvallis Association on a series of public surveys and workshops to brainstorm ideas to fill gaps in the city’s retail mix.
CIBA is one of about a dozen local business coalitions affiliated with the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA), which helps new independent business alliances get started and provides networking, tools, and assistance to established alliances.