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'Buy Local' advocates aim to mature Asheville movement

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11/19/2012 - 'Buy Local' advocates aim to mature Asheville movement
by Carol Motsinger - Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE -- When Franzi Charen walks by the Go Local or Love Asheville signs or stickers in local storefront windows, she doesn't think about business.

Her thoughts concern community, not commerce.

For the energetic leader of Asheville Grown Business Alliance, Go Local is about "what makes a community, in a true sense."

"It's the difference between consumers and citizens," she said.

In just three years, Charen and the other volunteers behind Asheville Grown -- a grassroots, educational campaign focused on growing Asheville's vibrant economy -- have unified the independent, locally owned business community through creative branding campaigns, innovative partnerships and festive, jam-packed celebrations.

But after a successful first year for the Go Local Card, a project benefiting Asheville Grown and city schools, Charen said a second year of strong sales may provide the time and resources to "evaluate what's next."

"One of the things that we have lacked is a true strategic plan," she said, noting they sold around 1,000 of the Go Local discount cards last year. The new card, which costs $16 online, are on sale now.

"We haven't taken the time to sit back and really do that because we have a limited capacity. We wanted to focus on doing a couple things really well. For us, as a volunteer campaign, we've been concentrating on doing those things well year after year because we decided that was better than expanding into new projects. But if we raise enough money from sales of the Go Local card, we might be able to hire someone to work for the alliance."

Now, Charen runs the organization with the help of an eight-person steering committee. In between chatting with the customers at her Lexington Avenue boutique, Hip Replacements, Charen is typing away on her laptop, answering emails, seeking new research about the importance of a local economy, promoting businesses and events, including May's Big Love Fest that celebrates independent and "unchained" shops.

The concept of supporting handmade and homegrown existed ages before Charen moved to Asheville and the alliance was hatched. Asheville Grown, however, has snared that pervasive spirit, given it a name and face, and released it back into the modern world in a modern way.

"It's woven into the fabric of the community, and has its origins in the Biltmore Industries, Guild Crafts and Black Mountain College ethos," said Brandy Bourne, an organizer of the Big L ove Fest and Big Crafty, a biannual indie craft bazaar.

The Big Crafty will return Dec. 2 to the Asheville Art Museum. Bourne noted she's noticed in other towns that the Buy Local and sister movements "feel abstract."

The alliance "has taken that general sentiment that exists here and turned it into something concrete. They've put a name to it, generated energy around it and channeled that energy into concrete projects, and their efforts are hailed around the nation," she said.

The alliance emerged after Charen received requests for a holiday shopping branding campaign, and answered the call with "Local is the New Black" posters for participating business owners.

The posters will return this year with the season, ushered in by the Black Friday sales push the day after Thanksgiving. The alliance will debut its first Go Local independent business directory in December and online in the next couple weeks, Charen said. The directory is done in partnership with the Mountain Xpress; 28,000 copies of the directory will be available as part of the weekly publication and another 12,000 will be available for distribution elsewhere.

"When we've had strong partners with great ideas, we felt like the work wasn't all on us," Charen said. "Partnerships seem like the thing that has moved forward."

Since that first winter, Asheville Grown's evolution "has been truly driven by the community," Charen said. "When it started, it was just posters for the holidays. And then somebody asked, 'What are you doing for Valentine's Day shopping?' I said, 'I don't know.' But I figured that out, and we just went from there."

A national leader

Local efforts, particularly the Go Local Card discount program benefiting local city schools, garner praise from national leaders in independent business advocacy.

Jeff Milchen, co-director of the American Independent Business Alliance, said he considers Asheville Grown work "really innovative."

"They are opening up new realms of opportunities," he said, particularly noting the Go Local Card partnership with Asheville City Schools Foundation and the Asheville City Schools. "We are frequently referencing their work in our newsletters."

Asheville Grown has also done a "great job of building on what's there" with an individual touch, Milchen said. The organization uses AIBA's educational and research material, but has customized approaches with creative imagery.

Advocacy groups across the country often struggle with developing a local Buy Local concept. In Asheville's case, the iconic and spirited Love Asheville campaign taps into the artistic talent and it's contemporary, casual aesthetic.

The work of Asheville Grown and similar organizations across the country does translate as cash into small-business's registers.

The fifth-annual post-holiday survey of independent businesses by Stacy Mitchell, of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, yielded evidence that pro-local attitudes are growing and local businesses are benefiting from advocacy and awareness campaigns.

The survey tallied responses from 1,768 businesses in 49 states, and found that independent businesses in communities with an active "buy indie/buy local" campaign run by a local business/citizen alliance saw revenues grow 7.2 percent in 2011, compared to 2.6 percent for those in areas without an alliance.

Taking action

The second phase of Asheville Grown, Charen said, has focused on turning awareness into action; sentiment into sales.

The Go Local Card features discounts and services from 360 locally owned, independent businesses, providing ways for local businesses to give back to the alliance and schools, and incentives for shoppers to choose local.

Last year, organizers aimed for 30 participating businesses and signed up 120; sales of the cards raised $10,000 for the schools.

Charen said she believes the Go Local Card has been a success because of its positive, community-oriented benefits.

"The schools are the next generation who is running Asheville," she said. "If we instill in them a value, an understanding of the benefit of local economy and keeping unique, creative avenues for entrepreneurship alive in the this town, we are setting ourselves up for a successful future."

Asheville Grown also organizes the occasional surprise, social spending event called a Ca$hMob. The organization chooses a locally owned business, and "mobsters" are asked to spend $20 at the event, meet three new people, and socialize over drinks later.

In September, about 40 people mobbed, Zapow!, an art and illustration gallery on Battery Park Avenue.

"Being Cashmobbed was a wonderful boon to our business," said co-owner Lauren Patton. "It brought new people into the gallery, and it brought in sales for the artists on a Thursday afternoon in September, which is typically a slow retail time ... It made us feel thankful to be a part of such a wonderful community that wants to support local businesses."

Artist Greg Vineyard's illustrations are featured at Zapow!, and he also operates a ceramic studio in the River Arts District's Curve Studios. On Nov. 10-11, Vineyard participated in the studio stroll, a biannual event that exemplifies that cooperation, rather than competition, defines the district of around 280 artists.

"The diversity is wonderful," Vineyard said. "We support each other. We are aware of each other's work, hours and events. It helps us promote each other ... the philosophy is that if you can't find something in our studio, we hope you find something in the district. And if not there, downtown. Or Asheville. Or Western North Carolina. There is an ever expanding desire to keep business in our expanding circles of community."

What's next, needed

Vineyard noted that although the Buy Local culture and collective energy is strong, he encourages more individuals to volunteer time, whatever time and effort they can, to cultivate further awareness.

For Brandy Bourne, the "moral support" is rich for local businesses, artists, crafters and makers.

"And the better known of that group can do well financially," she said. "It has provided less in the way of infrastructure and opportunities for those just starting out, though programs like Blue Ridge Food Ventures are getting us there."

Charen would like to work more with city officials to determine if there are partnership opportunities for advocacy events or innovative government incentives to encourage small business growth.

"But they can't know what we need unless we tell them," she said.

Charen also noted that the banking and lending system should be shifted to support more start-ups.

So much local money is being "blindly put into Wall Street," she said. "If we could take a fraction of that money that is being invested in pensions, in IRAs, for example, and redirect to local businesses, it would make a huge difference. What if we could select a CD where all of our money would be dedicated to loans for small businesses? There are so many working ideas."

One model: Bank of North Dakota. It's the only state-owned bank in the country, "and instead of acting like a for-profit bank, it acts more like a civic institution and invests back in the state. That's a great model to learn from."

Jeff Milchen agrees that the next Buy Local development will come from statewide cooperation and collaboration. And it's happening in North Carolina: A couple weeks ago, Charen met with fellow advocates across the state in Pittsboro.

Charen, however, wants to also focus on "raising the bar" in her backyard. It"s not just about buying local; that's why last year, Asheville Grown changed the language from "buy local" to "go local."

The idea is to live locally, to incorporate local makers and service providers beyond the products on the store shelves.

"It's fine if you have a business, and you have a Go Local sign in your window," she said. "But as a business owner, hopefully thinking how are you going local behind the scenes? Where are your cleaning products coming from, for example?"

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