Making ‘Local’ MORE Local.

Something I got involved with recently is a local group that is reading a very interesting book on community development. Now, PUAC is NOT a Salon this morning and the hook I’m hanging my hat on in terms of this book is just one chapter that I feel is really important and interesting. But if you want to read the book yourself, here is the information -  The Small-Mart Revolution: How local businesses Are Beating the Global Competition, by Michael H. Shuman.

Now, this book is not exactly new. As a matter of fact, there is a web site: Small-Mart.

OK – back to chapter 4 of this book, which deals with how we, as consumers can make our ‘local’ even more local. One point that Schuman makes is that as consumers we really have more control over what we do with our money than we do over even local policy. He believes that even if only 10% of consumers’ spending went to local goods and businesses, this would make a huge change in terms of how much money stays local. Now, we talk a lot here about farmers markets (and by the way, next week is national farmers market week) and that is one terrific way to get up close and personal with food providers. But one of the things that Schuman talks about in the book are other goods and services which we should be looking at in terms of making our communities stronger.

One example he uses is looking at all the stuff that we buy and consumer and finding people in our communities who actually do it:

Drink: Anyone in your community who actually makes beer and wine? As weird as it is, even in our little city, we now have not only a couple of wineries (and one of them makes hard cider), but also a new microbrewery. If I widened the circle about 40 miles, I could pick up all sorts of wineries, herbal tea people and breweries.

Local Financial Institutions: Using credit unions instead of big banks. In some communities, they have even established ‘community credit unions’.

Those are just two – and I know we can all find service providers especially who are locally owned. In our little community, a couple established a movie theater to show the movies that Regal and the other big chain never show. Their membership has grown so much that they just announced that they are going after a grant to buy and renovate an old downtown movie house to…show more movies and have more seats. A local movie theater? Who’d a thunk. Schuman also talks about communities (especially in places like Wyoming and Montana) which basically have lost their retail sector – out there, to have to go shopping can take hours because of the great distances. Several communities decided to take matters into their own hands, got local people to invest their own bits of money and opened up their own stores to re-establish a retail businesses in their own town.

But here’s the thing – what about other goods and services? I spent 6-7 years in local economic development. At one of the jobs, I was in and out of what I thought were every single office, machine shop, factory and business in my three county area. That was fifteen years ago. A lot happens in a period like that. Twenty years ago, in our county, we had companies that:
Made shoes and boots
Made candy
Made furniture
Make camping equipment
Made and assembled a lot of electronics stuff
Made computers and computer parts
Did food processing of consumer products
Made consumer personal care products and cleaning products
Made high end stereo system equipment
And of course that does not touch on the ‘smaller fish’ who made parts of the end product who were subcontractors to the larger fish.

Some of this still exists, but one of the things that hit me during my meetings with the reading group is that as a community, we are remarkably ignorant of what is going on. Part of this is the fact that our newspaper has such poor coverage of local business news; their business department is still stuck on the two or three super-large employers who are involved in military contracting. Entrepreneurs don’t get much coverage at all. And it isn’t as if local consumers can exactly go to the commercial/industrial version of the farmers market to walk around and find all the local employers and what they do.

So one of the tasks that I see being necessary is to come up with an electronic directory, a local Yellow Pages or catalog, if you will, listing everything that’s made in the area, who makes it, and where it gets sold locally. I’m not sure quite how to do this because many times people like this are not members of organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce.

I’m thinking Aunt Toby has to get sneaky and ‘go underground’. Any ideas?  Any ideas in terms of what gets made in your communities? Are we all out of touch? How do we find this stuff?