Local Economy Centers: Places for Change
By Cheryl Kollin, Livability Project
These brick-and-mortar spaces are examples of Local Economy Centers, exemplifying emerging models of community building to tackle local issues and strengthen local economies. While many communities have success with local initiatives, government programs, and business partnerships, Kelley believes that these initiatives lack an essential piece. “What’s missing is a physical gathering place”, she explains. “A Local Economy Center allows people to engage in wherever they are in the process of localization and sustainability; it could be a place for people to see what’s going on in their community, incubate a new business, or take action.” She sees parallels to other movements sweeping the country such as Transition Towns, that focus on weaning our society away from fossil fuels and the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) that focuses on local economic development.
While each Local Economic Center is unique to its community, they share common values, which are:
1. Community-oriented–acting in the interest of the greater good;
2. Locally-focused, with an eye for regional trade and cooperation;
3. Cooperative principles and sharing ethic;
4. Triple bottom line practices (social, environmental, and economic); and a
5. Whole Systems Approach (as practiced using the Natural Step, Permaculture, Biomimicry, and other practices).
Michael Shuman, local economies advocate and Director of Research and Public Policy at BALLE, has written extensively on why investing in local business rather than Wall Street makes good economic sense. In his latest book, Local Dollars, Local Sense: How to Shift Your Dollars from Wall Street to Main Street, he offers 12 ways to invest in our local communities that yield a two to four times multiplier effect over traditional investing. Among the strategies, he advocates investing in community-owned business and cooperatives—reinforcing Local Economy Centers as place-based catalysts for incubating new business while educating the public.
The variety of settings, business models and legal structures among these three Local Economy Centers demonstrate that no one-size fits all.
In contrast, Share Exchange, based in Santa Rosa, California, caters to a small town (pop. 167,000) in the fertile wine country of northern California. It is organized as a California Cooperative and opened its doors in December 2010. Initial funding was boot-strapped (no outside funding) by the owners and this 1,800 square foot space is organized around four key programs: a marketplace for local goods, a CoWork space and incubator, a public gathering place for events and education, and a Local Economy Institute to share resources and best practices. In its short life, ShareExchange has attracted 250+ local entrepreneurs and 60 CoWork members, and has organized 200 events. Revenue comes from sales, membership, events, rent, sponsorship, and contracts.
In addition to these, other Local Economy Centers are popping up around the country recently including Hannah Grimes Center in Keene, New Hampshire and Green Garage Detroit. While these Centers are quite enticing and vibrant places, Kelley and Dave offer starts ups some advice–both human qualities, as well as, business strategies needed to succeed. First and foremost, expect to practice patience, perseverance, flexibility, and adaptability—qualities that are required for any start-up! Dave offers his business strategies to entrepreneurs; they must engage the private sector, find creative financing/funding opportunities, and form strategic partnerships for strong leverage. Kelley suggests that start-up Centers do preliminary test marketing; get stakeholder buy-in; collaborate; and devise capitalization early on.
Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Local Economy Centers offer a new model—a tangible space for communities to come together, engage, and create a shared vision and actions toward building more vibrant, economically and environmentally sustainable communities. While the founders offer some sobering advice with their lessons learned, they are pioneers of this new model. Like all pioneers, with vision and persistence, they are creating these spaces for change to turn community opportunities into a reality.