News » Features

Scaling Down

How one Boise group is taking a "buy local" philosophy to another level

by

Beth Geagan describes herself as a visionary.

Seated in the first-floor meeting space of her two-story, 111-year-old downtown Boise office building, Geagan produced the newest version of a tightly organized flowchart. A web of lines bending across the page connected boxes of various sizes filled with words like "sustainability," "resources," "collaborative partnerships" and "community." As her finger traced the lines and drew invisible circles around some boxes for emphasis, Geagan spoke quickly, rarely stumbling over words, explaining that the diagram was a very precise framework for what she and a group of local business owners hope will be a foundation for change.

Think Boise First is the genesis of that change.

"Think Boise First is a buy-local awareness campaign and an opportunity for business owners to gather and share resources and ideas about how to operate more effective and sustainable businesses," explained Geagan. "When I talk about sustainability, I'm not talking about what's green, but what lasts over time."

At its simplest, Think Boise First is a business alliance with a much broader focus. Its founders hope that by building a strong "local living economy," more of Boise's dollars will remain within the community rather than trickle out via out-of-state business.

To accomplish that mission, Think Boise First and similar local initiatives throughout the country make consumer education a priority. The group has created materials for both consumers and business owners to better educate the public about the reasons shopping locally is important. They also ramp up media and consumer attention to the issue by taking part in nationwide events like America Unchained in November.

Building business-to-business relationships are also a focus, with regular meetings and networking events for members.

Essentially, Geagan explained, the idea is to not only educate consumers but to also educate business owners about how they can support their own business and ensure its sustainability over time.

Despite her almost inextricable involvement with Think Boise First at its current stage, the organization didn't start with Geagan. The idea had been simmering among some local residents for several years, but it took Geagan's professional expertise as a management consultant to get things off the ground. Today, she's not so much the head of Think Boise First as she is the organization's linchpin.

Jon Barrett, the former co-executive director of Idaho Smart Growth, who is on the steering committee for Think Boise First, said he and Dan Walters of Idaho's Bounty, who is also on the steering committee, had each been mulling over a local-first business collective for several years. For Walters, who'd been involved with other sustainability groups, it was a speech in Portland, Ore., several years ago by one of BALLE's co-founders that spurred him into action.

BALLE, or the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, is Think Boise First's nationwide partner. It was co-founded in 2001 by Judy Wicks and Laury Hammel, East Coast entrepreneurs who had been working on sustainable and socially responsible business practices with other organizations.

Hammel, who is the owner of a handful of health clubs in Boston, started working on sustainability issues in his business two decades ago. In the late 1980s, he was involved in the creation of Business for Social Responsibility, a vehicle he envisioned would help make business more socially responsible and engaged in public policy. That organization's membership roster now reads like a who's who of the corporate world, which is why Hammel hasn't been involved since 2000.

Hammel has been an instrumental link between BALLE and Think Boise First, and on Oct. 22, he'll visit Idaho to speak to the group's members.

"In Boise, we're really trying to organize business around the idea of helping each other develop strong, local businesses and to put businesses together to support fellow entrepreneurs and to help residents do that as well," said Hammel.

For example, in addition to educating local residents, he said local businesses should look to one another to get things like office supplies, rather than relying on a big box store.

Since starting BALLE, Hammel has founded almost two-dozen local-first organizations all over the country, including the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Boston, where he makes his home. According to Hammel, about a half-dozen BALLE organizations operate in Massachusetts under three concepts: local, green and fair.

The fair part is about paying a living wage, said Hammel, and the green part is about considering more environmentally friendly business practices.

"The local piece is to get people to understand when they make a purchase, the choices they make with their purchasing dollars when they shop are just as important to the economy and to the community as the vote they make on election day," said Hammel.

However, simply getting a handful of business owners together and handing out fliers isn't the way to affect change. Hammel's philosophy revolves around creating localized economic development, and the best way to achieve that, he believes, is to develop entrepreneurship and small, independent business by partnering with cities, counties or states. These partnerships are key, according to Hammel, because a real buy-local movement can't be funded by the membership fees of local businesses alone. Rather, dues are supplemented by foundations, government programs and grants.

As for the "why" behind all the fuss to support local businesses, Hammel's advocacy takes a two-pronged approach.

"I try to make the economic point, and I try to make the relationship point," he said. "First, I say there's a sweet spot here because when you support a local business, you're not only making it more profitable and more effective and serving the needs of the community, you're supporting the community and the economy itself because you're circulating dollars.

"The second thing is that I always want to support my neighbors and I want to know who I do business with."

After Dan Walters saw Wicks speak in Portland, he and Barrett were among a group who helped bring David Korten, one of BALLE's first board members, to Boise to speak at Leku Ona in early 2007.

Korten, who holds an MBA and a Ph.D. from the Stanford Business School and taught at Harvard Business School, was involved with BALLE as Hammel and Wicks were piecing it together. He's written several bestselling books about corporate America and what he sees as an imperative need for large-scale global economic change, and travels the country lecturing on his views. (From his Web site: "A mounting perfect economic storm born of a convergence of peak oil, climate change, and a falling U.S. dollar is poised to bring a dramatic restructuring of every aspect of modern life.")

At Leku Ona, Korten spoke to about 20 local business owners over breakfast.

Geagan was in the crowd.

"I always knew that if I found a gap, I'd start a nonprofit to fill that gap but I hadn't found a gap," Geagan said. When she heard Korten speak, she found that gap and it dovetailed with her personal passion to support local business.

After Korten's talk, Geagan attended BALLE's annual conference in Berkeley, Calif., that summer to learn more about it. Of the five people who went to the conference, Geagan, Walters, Barrett and Mark Ickes committed to starting Think Boise First.

In July 2007, the foursome started meeting monthly at Geagan's house, and by November, they'd identified members of the steering committee. (Disclosure: BW publisher Sally Freeman is a member of the steering committee.) In January, regular committee meetings convened, and three weeks ago, on Sept. 1, Think Boise First officially opened up membership to all locally owned businesses in Boise.

Despite that fact that it's just going public, Think Boise First has been proactive about getting its message into the community. Last May, the organization participated in the Green Expo, conducting a shopper survey to canvass residents about their attitudes and practices regarding shopping locally. They also took their message to City Harvest several weekends ago. Hammel will speak in October, and in November, the group will participate in the nationwide America Unchained event, with media and advertising campaigns, special promotions and distribution of point of sale materials at local businesses. Currently steering committee members are actively recruiting new members in the business community.

"This is not a passive activity. This is not something where you pay your membership and we send you materials," Geagan explained. "We want people active and motivated and if [business owners] want to be here in 20 years, they need to be engaged in order for that to happen."

As Think Boise First takes off, perhaps the best way to look ahead is to consider Local First Utah, which Hammel helped to establish in his hometown of Salt Lake City three years ago. Local First Utah is a BALLE member with more than 2,000 business partners throughout Utah, and executive director Alison Einerson describes the nonprofit's main objective as consumer education. The group hosts a variety of events and promotions throughout the year, and publishes a directory of local businesses, both items on Think Boise First's agenda.

Utah's group, however, is a slightly different breed of local-first initiative.

Due to what Einerson said is a unique political and social climate, Local First Utah is a statewide organization rather than one focusing solely on a single community. Because of that, the Salt Lake City-based group is able to draw public funding not only from city and county sources, but state coffers as well.

"Within Utah, Salt Lake is seen as a very liberal enclave so we didn't want an organization that was only affiliated with Salt Lake because this is not a liberal or conservative issue. It's not drawn on party lines; it's about real community," Einerson said. She finds that detractors often view local-first values as liberal or elitist, and when she meets with resistance, she believes it's because people don't fully understand the effects on their community.

At a conference earlier this month, Einerson met with resistance head-on.

"You get these people from very small or rural communities who've been offered big box development opportunities and they see it as an economic boon," she said. "What they don't see is that it's a zero-sum game. It's not going to be this massive influx of new dollars. People just shift their money and you can put your money into a store that's going to send it out of state or you can keep it in your community."

But optimistic small town residents aren't the only skeptics of local-first ideologies.

At the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Utah, director James Wood said that from an economic standpoint, it's difficult to make the case that local is better. Wood, who has known Hammel for decades, also knows Local First Utah well, having conducted economic impact surveys for the group.

"Laury is an idealist, but in reality, it just seems to me like they're really swimming upstream," said Wood. In an example he said is typical of local-first supporters, Wood pitted a local bookstore against its corporate competition, asking which creates more jobs and economic impact. Using their two biggest expenses—labor and utilities—Wood said in both cases the big box store is likely to trump the local store. According to him, the bureau has found that usually corporate wages are higher, they employ more people and likely offer benefits that local owners cannot.

Although Wood concedes that on a personal level, he enjoys having locally owned businesses in his community, he thinks that the living local economies of Hammel's system are conceptually flawed since many of the goods sold at local stores aren't made in the state.

"They're not made locally. They have to be imported so there's no great benefit to the people in Utah, or Idaho," said Wood. And often, he continued, products on the shelves at locally owned stores and big box stores are from the same corporate distributor.

Geagan, however, could be several steps ahead of Wood.

"People say, 'you're not a true local business if your goods aren't manufactured in Idaho,'" she said. But Geagan has wider-reaching vision.

While Local First Utah draws the line at local business—Einerson said Utah's group is not as driven by sustainability as its national partner—BALLE looks beyond simply supporting local retailers and eventually Geagan's vision will, too.

"I think we're living in this world where we're transitioning from being one way to being another way and we happen to find ourselves on that bridge," said Geagan. "I understand where we need to go, and I can help build a bridge that works for both worlds so that we can get to a different way of living and working and doing things."

That different way hearkens back to the sort of large-scale change Korten proposes, though for Geagan it's less drastic and it's Idaho-centric.

Referencing one of Korten's ideas, Geagan said we live in a time when the current system is not working, we're "unraveling." She doesn't believe we can continue to sustain our use of resources or our short-term financial model of employing large numbers of people and, when there's an economic downtown, laying off large numbers of people.

As an answer to that unraveling, Geagan has developed an idea, a statewide entity called Sustainable Community Connections of Idaho.

On her flowchart, SCCI is the large, central box around which everything else orbits and to which all lines eventually lead. In Geagan's words, SCCI is "the hub" for all things local, including Think Boise First and any local first retail campaigns that may crop up in Idaho communities.

In addition to supporting programs like Think Boise First, SCCI would support local investing, develop a sustainable local food program and encourage collaboration among nonprofits that tend to operate ineffectively on limited resources.

"Think Boise First is the first step toward demonstrating the importance of sustaining the local Boise community, but it is only the first step," reiterated Geagan. SCCI is the ultimate goal.

Barrett takes a more metaphorical approach in his explanation of how SCCI will work.

"Sustainable Community Connections of Idaho is like the whole grocery store and Think Boise First is just the dairy section. And then another group is the meat section and another group is the wine section and they all fit into the store, but they all support each other."

Those other sections may be local investment opportunities or green building or local food systems, but SCCI is what holds all those sustainability pieces together.

Geagan calls it the hub that brings all the spokes together. Local food growers have to consider the local businesses that will sell their products and local businesses have to consider local consumers and somebody has to educate local consumers as to why they should buy local in the first place.

"To me, that's what sustainable community is," Geagan said. "It's an integrated framework and network where we understand all the parts and pieces."

Moving forward, Geagan said she's not entirely sure what SCCI will look like once it's up and running, but she's set the pieces in motion to accomplish the task. Over the next few months, she'll finish putting together a board of directors and applying for 501(c)3 status.

Right now, Geagan anticipates running the organization for a brief period of time until things have evolved enough to hire an executive director, but she makes one thing clear. In the same way that a flowchart is only a piece of paper without people rallying behind its greater purpose, so, too, is Think Boise First and Sustainable Community Connections of Idaho.

"Even though I'm at the forefront of this, I'm not alone. I keep going back to the business owners saying this is yours. It won't be sustainable if it's one person or a small group; it has to be something that is beneficial to a large group by nature of what its vision is and for it to last."

Laury Hammel speaks in Boise on Wednesday, Oct. 22, at the Linen Building from 6:30 to 8 p.m. For details or for information about Think Boise First, visit thinkboisefirst.org or livingeconomies.org.