To the dismay of mom-and-pop shops everywhere, it often seems American business is destined to operate solely on a corporate level. In some cities, the advancement of this prospect has fueled organized efforts to support independently owned businesses. The positive outcomes of “buying local” are easy to grasp. When people spend money at locally owned businesses, the revenue stays within the community, enhancing its economic stability and character. On the flip side, when people spend money at large franchises, the revenue goes to the headquarters of the corporation-usually out of state-weakening the local economy.
Many U.S. cities have created nonprofit organizations and business alliances to promote the buy-local cause. An example of a good buy-local program is Sustainable Connections, an organization that operates in Washington state. Sustainable Connections requires an annual fee to provide its local business members with networking opportunities, newsletters, annual conferences, peer mentoring, member-to-member discounts and benefits. To help small businesses attract consumers, it distributes locals-only directories and raises public awareness about the advantages of buying local.
Currently, San Diego's small business owners are not supported by any such organization. So, when the launch of the San Diego Buy Local Campaign (SDBLC) was announced, CityBeat was eager to get the skinny on the new program.
Unfortunately, compared to Sustainable Connections, the SDBLC is a lot of talk and seemingly little action. The SDBLC doesn't charge its members a fee for services, but maybe that's because it doesn't really have any services to offer. In fact, besides well-intentioned rhetoric, the only thing the SDBLC appears to be offering the community is a logo.
“We want to create a positive brand-image for San Diego local business,” explained Jon O'Connor, co-creator of the SDBLC. “This is just a campaign, an idea. A real nonprofit would be great, but I don't think it would work right now to come in to San Diego with a buy-local association that was wanting money from people because I don't think people are ready to trust that yet.”
However, Enchantra Phelps, owner of The Living Room Coffeehouse on University Avenue in Hillcrest, said she would be willing to pay to participate in a program like Sustainable Connections. “I think it's really important for people to understand how they can enrich their community by choosing local businesses over Starbucks and McDonald's. The fact that it would help my place as well as other local businesses is also really important,” Phelps said.
Of course, talking up the cause and distributing a free logo could hardly have a negative effect on local businesses. On the other hand, if the creators of the SDBLC really have the best interests of local businesses in mind, why aren't they trying to start up the real deal?
Maybe they're too busy with their other venture. As it happens, the same two men behind the SDBLC are also in hot pursuit of investors for another project, a coffee shop, The House, they're looking to open somewhere uptown, either in Hillcrest, North Park or Normal Heights.
As of press time, The House exists only in the form of an inch-thick business proposal. However, if it ever becomes a reality, The House sounds like one cool coffee shop. O'Connor and Benton plan to make The House a restaurant-sized performance venue that will contain a recording studio, as well as rooftop seating. They are also striving to make the building as environmentally friendly as possible, and they want to run the place as a co-op of sorts, with a board of directors that will be chosen by the investors.
As groovy as The House may eventually be, the SDBLC is being presented as an initiative of The House, despite the fact that The House is $475,000 away from becoming a reality. O'Connor maintains that the June 14 SDBLC launch event existed solely to promote the campaign, yet the ties between the two projects are hard to ignore. For example, the San Diego businesses represented at the event-a local brewery, bakery, coffee roasting company, and music magazine-could all conceivably gain from the opening of The House. Copies of The House's business proposal were prominently displayed at the event.
Despite outward appearances that the San Diego Buy Local Campaign is merely the motto of The House, O'Connor insisted the two are separate entities that could function independently of one another.
“We would love to just hand [the campaign] over to the community,” said O'Connor. “It can't be done just by us at The House, but it's something we felt it was important for us to get started. We want to light some fires under people and let people run with it, because it's really not ours, its San Diego's.”