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Wednesday, September 4,2013

Why local matters

by Terry Link
(Editorīs note: Beginning this week, City Pulse is donating space once a month to Capital Area Local First so it can list its members. See page 3 for the first one. We hope the ads will grow as locally owned businesses see the value of joining this important organization. For more information, please read this column and visit capitalarealocalfirst.org. — Berl Schwartz)

I received some useful comments on the last column from folks who want to support local businesses, especially those that match their values, which is sometimes still a challenge. But a little progress has been made on at least one level.

The idea behind Capital Area Local First — CALF — is to build a stronger community through support of local ownership. The organization is trying to re-invigorate its efforts by helping folks know just what businesses are indeed locally owned and controlled and that are committed to making this a more sustainable community. (Truth in marketing: My company, Starting Now, LLC and City Pulse are both members. City Pulse editor and publisher Berl Schwartz and I are volunteer board members of CALF.)

A 2008 study commissioned by Local First in Grand Rapids found that for every $100 spent in its community at a locally owned business, $68 stays in the community circulating among the local population as opposed to only $43 of $100 spent at a non-local business. As author and community development specialist Michael Shuman notes, “Going local does not mean walling off the outside world. It means nurturing locally owned businesses which use local resources sustainably, employ local workers at decent wages and serve primarily local consumers. It means becoming more self-sufficient and less dependent on imports. Control moves from the boardrooms of distant corporations and back into the community where it belongs.”

Nick Gavrilides, owner of Soup Spoon Café in Lansing, is committed to quality food and service at reasonable prices so that customers have the best overall experience. And he tries to source as much product as he can from local or Michigan producers. However, as Gavrilides said in a recent interview, “It’s not local only. The product or service must be of quality first.” So his feta cheese is still imported.

When Gavrilides started Soup Spoon in 2006 with a couple of employees, it served only lunches. Wildly successful, it now has 30 employees and serves all three meals plus a wide assortment of Michigan beers and wines. He feels that success when people return, whether it is several times a week or when bringing back a visiting friend or relative because they so enjoyed their dining experience the last time they were in town.

Gavrilides started this odyssey working as a chef at Signatures American Grill out on Park Lake Road for five years before moving on to Eddie O’Flynn’s in Owosso, all the while living on Lansing’s East Side and wanting to be closer to home. When a spot opened up on Michigan Avenue, he jumped at it and the Soup Spoon was born.

Gavrilides joined CALF because he believes that local matters. As he told me recently, locally owned shops can’t compete with the big dining franchises that can buy advertising on the Super Bowl telecast. Such businesses send a good portion of their revenue out of state to corporate headquarters and CEOs. Gavrilides’ employees haven’t jumped ship as they so frequently do at fast-food chains. In fact, most have stayed since they first walked in the Soup Spoon door years ago, because the working conditions, compensation and their connection to the restaurant is personal.

Roy Saper, of Saper Galleries, is another long-time supporter of CALF. Saper brings in art from around the block and around the world and does work for people both here and globally who value him and his staff for their selection of art and their skills at presentation and framing. So why does Saper belong to CALF? He believes that local businesses care about “strengthening the neighborhood in which they work and live, and that the whole economic system works better when we are supporting our neighbors.” He epitomizes the connection of the local and the global.

Kathy Valentine, owner of The Plant Professionals, shops for things she needs for her business at the local hardware. She buys the soap she uses for insect control through the East Lansing Food Coop. She also shops at local galleries when she wants gifts and believes that we are stronger as a community when we think local.

Some communities have evolved a strong local business ethos. Grand Rapids Local First has 550 local members and a staff of five that helps members thrive through festive community-driven events and programs that celebrate the local. CALF is a long way from this goal. But if it can build membership, it, too, could have full-time staff to help consumers connect with those locally owned businesses that match their values and provide things they need to live fulfilling and joyful lives in a more sustainable community. Maybe Lansing isn’t ready, but I’m betting we are. We hope to have 250 members by the end of the year so we might better market local ownership and what it provides to our community. Look for the CALF logo in shop windows and support local owners committed to our community.

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