have raised local awareness around Boulder, Milchen says "voting with your dollars" has limits. "Chains have used their economic and political power to stack the deck," he contends, noting that many public policies—tax breaks for big retailers, land-use rules that favor sprawling developments over central business districts, and lax enforcement of antitrust laws—give large corporations unwarranted advantages over local businesses.
To reverse these trends, communities must adopt rules that support, rather than undermine, the homegrown economy. Two years ago BIBA introduced the Community Vitality Act (CVA), a package of four proposed ordinances drafted with the help of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s New Rules Project, a national effort based in Minneapolis to promote policies that build strong, sustainable local economies. The CVA would require the city to give preference to locally owned businesses for its purchases and contracts; prohibit the leasing of city-owned property to nonlocal businesses; limit the number of "formula" businesses (chains) that could locate in Boulder; and establish a public review process for approving new big retail stores.
An unprecedented number of people contacted the city council about the controversial proposal, with supporters far outnumbering opponents. Several debates were widely attended and broadcast on local television. "The CVA clearly touched a chord with the community," says Boulder Mayor Will Toor. The proposal, however, continues to be debated by city officials. But even if the CVA never passes, says David Bolduc, it was well worth the effort for the public conversation it generated. Milchen says the CVA debate "vastly increased the number of people familiar with the association and generated serious thinking about the difference between acting as an engaged citizen and merely being a consumer."
Boulder’s chain stores
may not be dropping in number, but they are taking more heat. In December 2000, in an event unconnected to BIBA, 60 protesters against corporate-driven globalization marched on Borders Books and Starbucks. Protesters have haunted Borders for several months, and, by some accounts, the store is struggling.
Meanwhile, Mayor Toor believes that BIBA has made city officials more aware of how their decisions affect local businesses. The city is now examining zoning changes to help ensure that affordable commercial space remains available for local entrepreneurs.
Nearly a dozen other communities are now forming independent business alliances, some in response to Boulder’s success. A new Salt Lake City alliance helped block plans for a sprawling shopping center. In Vermont, general store owners are forming an alliance for joint purchasing and marketing. In Tucson, local restaurants have teamed up to lower purchasing costs and to raise awareness of their value to the city’s sense of place. Hoping to nurture this new movement, Milchen recently launched the American Independent Business Alliance, a national network for supporting local coalitions.
Trends for local businesses right now may look dismal. But trends are not destiny. More and more people are acting to protect their communities from global economic consolidation. The Boulder Independent Business Alliance provides an innovative model for strengthening locally owned businesses and building strong, self-reliant communities.
Stacy Mitchell is a researcher with the New Rules Project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of The Home Town Advantage (ILSR, 2000). She produces an electronic newsletter (available at www.newrules.org) chronicling efforts to support locally owned businesses. Reprinted from the environmental and community action magazine Orion Afield (Autumn 2001). Subscriptions: $30/yr. (4 issues plus membership in the Orion Society) from 195 Main St., Great Barrington, MA 01230.
For information on promoting locally owned businesses in your town contact the American Independent Business Alliance, 1510 5th St., Boulder, CO 80302; 303/402-1575; info@AMIBA.net.
The Boulder Independent Business Alliance at: 1202 Folsom, Boulder, CO 80302; 720/565-3854; firstname.lastname@example.org;