In my ”How local is local?” column, I mentioned I was attending a national conference in Grand Rapids of locally owned businesses. It was a whirlwind of entrepreneurs from all regions of the country, sharing their energy, successes and pitfalls freely with one another in an atmosphere of”can-do-ness.” Young and old (Grace Lee Boggs, 93-year-old matriarch for social justice from Detroit, gave a sterling keynote from her wheelchair); black, brown, white and all colors in between; bankers and bakers, bookstore and film theater owners, restaurateurs and farmers, architects and manufacturers were all represented.

What becomes clear from attending a BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) conference is that there is an indefatigable power of creative possibilities alive and well in this nation of small local businesses. Here are a few possibilities being born in other communities: Rusty Chain Beer in Buffalo, N.Y.,  brews its own recipe for local beer while simultaneously supporting a bike-able community. Claire’s Restaurant and Tavern in Hardwick, Vt.,  was formed using a Community Supported Agriculture approach. RSA Social Finance in San Francisco is a financial firm that targets triple-bottom-line — a way of accounting that takes into account social, ecological and economic factors — small local businesses while returning profits to investors, large and small, thereby making it more viable for small businesses that want to do well by doing good.

There was lots of chatter by representatives of local BALLE networks about how to grow the support for locally owned business. Grand Rapids, the host community, has more than 500 local businesses in its Local First network, while Ann Arbor has more than 250. Bellingham, Wash., Buffalo, Burlington, Vt., Chicago, Bloomington, Ind., and many more cities were represented. In each community locally owned businesses cooperate with each other to build a strong community — one they have roots in and will not abandon when profit margins aren’t up to Wall Street speculators’ whims. Zingerman’s from Ann Arbor is just one example. Paul Saginaw, the co-founder, spoke about how employees are full partners in developing business opportunities and how they will keep their company’s geography, despite the possibility of growing national, focused on the region of the state. Laury Hammel, owner of Longfellow Clubs (a set of five tennis and athletic clubs in the Boston area), offers economically disadvantaged children free tennis lessons at the clubs.

There was lots of energy and discussion of the need for a new economy, one based not upon greed and self-aggrandizement but on community, creativity and the environment. Local entrepreneurs who dominated this meeting want to take back their places from the global Fortune 500 conglomerates that control so much of the economy. Fred Keller, CEO and founder of Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids, discussed becoming the first certified B-Corporation (public benefit corporation. Keller believes the triple-bottom-line is not only essential and morally right but also profitable. His company has seen steady double-digit growth figures for years while moving from being predominantly a plastics manufacturer into developing parts for wind turbines, developing a low-cost water filter for the Third World, hiring disadvantaged citizens (parolees, disabled, etc.), paying living wages and working to make his company the first publicly “anti-racist” firm in the country. Now with 1,500 employees in five states, there is no doubt that Keller has found a gold mine of possibilities.

Where do the possibilities end? They don’t. Ideas have power, and the idea of an economy of small, locally owned enterprises that have both their community and the planet at heart provides endless opportunities for human development in any community. See what microfinance has unleashed in Bangladesh, Botswana and Bolivia. The entrepreneurial spirit, when channeled for the local common good, has what scientists refer to as “emergent properties.” We tend to run into problems when we try to scale everything up and assume the specific model will work everywhere — just look at abandoned Walmart and K-Mart stores sprinkled around the planet. But that globalizing tendency also concentrates power away from the local community and with it much of its wealth. 

The fifth annual post-holiday survey of independent businesses by the Institute for Local Self Reliance yielded powerful evidence that pro-local attitudes are yielding direct benefits for their members of local networks. The survey tallied responses from 1,768 businesses, all independent and locally owned, across 49 states. Among the notable results:

Independent businesses in communities with an active “buy independent/buy local” campaign run by grassroots groups like Capital Area Local First saw revenues grow 7.2 percent in 2011, compared to 2.6 percent for those in areas without an alliance.

Looking solely at retail respondents, the survey found those in areas with an active alliance reported holiday sales growth of 8.5 percent in 2011, compared to 5.2 percent for retailers in areas without such an initiative.

Have you visited one of our locally owned lumberyards recently for that summer deck project?