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The local Buy Local movement

May 31, 2009

By Brian Reisinger • Wausau Daily Herald • May 30, 2009

If you’ve bought shoes at Baeseman’s Shoe and Clothing, co-owner Tom Rossi can tell you exactly what brand, style and size you wear. He’ll need a moment, though, to sift through the thousands of index cards sitting alphabetized in small filing cabinets in the back, his glasses perched on the end of his nose.

“We know what works in our store,” Rossi, 51, said at the establishment on Wausau’s west side. “I got cards up the ying-yang.”

His establishment and other locally owned central Wisconsin businesses exhibit that personal touch, but their resources are limited in markets that include national chains and extend as far as a Google search.

The result is a “buy-local” movement that is reaching a fever pitch in central Wisconsin and beyond as the economy struggles — mobilizing businesses, activists, the agricultural community, lobbyists and even large chain stores. Consumers face a decision that’s intensifying in the national recession: whether, when and how to buy local.

The question pits what small-business advocates present as greater local impact, more character and value against the job creation, lower prices and convenience of large chain stores.

Buy-local advocates argue that spending your dollars locally is key to economic recovery, because that money will recycle through the community. In Grand Rapids, Mich., about $68 out of every $100 spent at local businesses remained in the local economy, compared with $43 for nonlocal businesses, according to a 2008 study by the research firm Civic Economics.

Then again, large chain stores employ hundreds of people whose wages circulate locally. Wal-Mart employs about 400 workers at its Rib Mountain store, spokesman Daniel Morales said. Target’s Weston store employs about 185, spokeswoman Michaela Gleason said.

By themselves, small, locally owned establishments don’t employ nearly as many people, but they still create jobs. Rossi and his sister, co-owner Mary Nordstrom, run Baeseman’s with help from four part-time workers. Taken together, employees of small businesses make up about 54 percent of Wisconsin’s work force, said Bill Smith, director of the Wisconsin Chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business.

Although the buy-local movement is gaining momentum, it means different things to different people.

It spans many sectors of the economy, with businesses of all shapes and sizes latching on. In general, though, buying local means shopping for locally produced goods or at locally owned businesses.

Wausau’s buy-local push comes in the form of business promotions and gatherings such as farmers markets, but also through a growing online presence.

Bill and Lisa Coady of Wausau encourage people to buy local by writing about purchasing opportunities on a blog they began this year, Buy Local Central Wisconsin.

“I guess we see ourselves kind of as scouts and guides,” Bill Coady said.

The movement has long included home-grown produce and agriculture — Wausau’s farmers market on downtown River Drive opened for the season May 16 — but it’s become more intense this year. The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, which promotes Wisconsin dairy products, has made the theme of June Dairy Month “Eat Local. Eat Dairy.” The campaign includes recipe brochures, more than 60 breakfasts at farms across the state, and a range of traditional and online efforts, spokesman Patrick Geoghegan said.

Buying local also is an issue in the state Legislature. Smith’s National Federation of Independent Business is pushing a bill asking state government to try to do 25 percent of its purchasing from local businesses, including specific requirements for businesses owned by women, veterans and minorities.

In the past three years, just 16 percent of Wisconsin’s small businesses, generally employing fewer than 25 people, submitted bids to the state, even though a majority offer something the state could purchase, according to testimony provided by Smith in January testimony before an Assembly committee. The bill has passed the Assembly and awaits action by a Senate committee, Smith said.

Even chain stores — which buy-local advocates consider the enemy — are trying to meet consumer demand for local products. Although Wal-Mart won’t disclose its specific goals, Morales said stores in 2008 began an effort to carry a range of locally grown produce at various times during the year. Having produce available year-round, meanwhile, often requires nationwide purchasing.

Despite those efforts, the contrast between local businesses and chain stores is stark.

Local vs. chain

Craig Carlson’s sales pitch for the beef, chicken and turkey he raises on his farm north of Athens is simple.

“Well, the advantage is you can look me in the face when you buy it,” Carlson, 52, said as a soft rain pattered on the roof of his town of Hamburg farmhouse and sprinkled the lush green pastures outside.

With that intimacy comes a range of benefits, he said. His beef cattle are mainly grass-fed, with grain for the birds, all virtually free of any chemicals. He says his natural process yields food that is healthier and of higher quality, and he takes pride in working the land with three children still at home.

He concedes, though, that he can’t produce it as cheaply as the large farms that supply stores nationwide. If you want his products, you have to pay a premium.

Carlson’s situation exemplifies the tough choice consumers face. While local business people argue that they offer a personal touch and great value, they sometimes lack the convenience and affordability that large corporations have achieved.

Baeseman’s, for example, has footwear ranging in price from about $10 to $250. They’ll measure your foot, discuss brands and quality and provide some local color while they’re at it. Neither Rossi nor Nordstrom go long without making fun of the other — a dynamic they say draws customers as much as their shoes do.

“She’s a woman, and she’s always right,” Rossi said of his sister.

“Tom will insult anyone,” Nordstrom retorted later.

Wal-Mart, meanwhile, carries sandals as cheap as $2.50, according to its Web site, and shoppers can shop for almost everything else they need at the same time. Morales of Wal-Mart and Gleason of Target both emphasized that their stores are designed to deliver a wide range of affordable products.

“We ensure that our guests have choices,” Gleason said. For example, Target carries various versions of the same product at different levels of quality and cost, allowing consumers to decide how much they want to spend.

The Internet, while offering a resource to buy-local advocates, also offers options, with consumers able to research and purchase virtually anything online.

Large chain stores also make millions of dollars in charitable contributions to communities in Wisconsin, which spokesmen say is a sign of their commitment to the local residents with whom they do business.The result is an increasingly daunting world for many local business owners, even if they remain successful. Business at Baeseman’s has increased 14 percent over last year, for example, a fact that pleases but baffles its owners.

But some things are available only locally, like the beer at Wausau’s Bull Falls Brewery. Brewmaster Mike Zamzow runs the brewery with his father and six other employees and clearly takes pride in his range of hand-crafted brews, describing the meaning of their names and discussing Wausau’s craft-beer history as he enjoys a glass.

Other beers are more widely available and sometimes cheaper, but Zamzow, like other small business owners, says it’s about value, not price.

But buying local, he said, is a choice consumers have to make on a case-by-case basis.

“My feeling on that is, only buy local if it’s worth buying local,” Zamzow, 50, said.

Clearly, in the case of his beer, he thinks it is.

Large chain stores also make millions of dollars in charitable contributions to communities in Wisconsin, which spokesmen say is a sign of their commitment to the local residents with whom they do business.

The Internet, while offering a resource to buy-local advocates, also offers options, with consumers able to research and purchase virtually anything online.

The result is an increasingly daunting world for many local business owners, even if they remain successful. Business at Baeseman’s has increased 14 percent over last year, for example, a fact that pleases but baffles its owners.

But some things are available only locally, like the beer at Wausau’s Bull Falls Brewery. Brewmaster Mike Zamzow runs the brewery with his father and six other employees and clearly takes pride in his range of hand-crafted brews, describing the meaning of their names and discussing Wausau’s craft-beer history as he enjoys a glass.

Other beers are more widely available and sometimes cheaper, but Zamzow, like other small business owners, says it’s about value, not price.

But buying local, he said, is a choice consumers have to make on a case-by-case basis.

“My feeling on that is, only buy local if it’s worth buying local,” Zamzow, 50, said.

Clearly, in the case of his beer, he thinks it is.Other helpful links:

• Buy Local Central Wisconsin, a local Web site and blog on opportunities to buy local goods, http://www.buylocalcentralwisconsin.com
• Information on Wisconsin’s Eat Local Challenge, http://www.eatlocalwisconsin.com
• Wausau Region Chamber of Commerce, for information on area businesses, http://www.wausauchamber.com

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