Got A Robust Local Business Ecosystem? A Conversation with Zingerman's Paul Saginaw
This interview is excerpted from MarkMaynard.com. To read the complete article click here.
For the first time ever, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies
(BALLE) will be holding its national, annual conference for independently owned, socially responsible businesses, here, in Michigan. The meeting, which is being called Real Prosperity Starts Here
, is scheduled to take place in Grand Rapids this May, and, as of right now, I’m happy to say, it looks as though I’m going to be able to attend, as a member of the press. In preparation for the big event, which will draw visionary entrepreneurs and local business advocates from across North America, I sent a few questions to BALLE board member, Paul Saginaw, the co-founder of the Ann Arbor culinary juggernaut known as Zingerman’s
. Following are his responses.
: First off, can you tell us a little about BALLE, and why it is that you think the work of the organization is so important at this point in American history?
: BALLE is the only national business alliance dedicated to connecting local, independent businesses to each other. That means the collective wisdom and knowledge about crowdfunding in Arizona is quickly and easily accessible by their business peers in Detroit, and that cross-pollination is proving to be a massive catalyst in moving the Localist movement to the forefront of policy and mainstream awareness.
: In a few weeks, BALLE is holding its annual conference in Grand Rapids. Why Grand Rapids? Or, if I can put you on the spot… Why not Detroit, which seems like ground zero when it comes to this kind of thing?
: We have historically partnered to put on the conference with an established local BALLE network such that we can showcase their local living economy impacts up-close and personal. There is wonderful work happening in Detroit right now, which is why we have a post-conference tour of Detroit and a Michigan-specific scholarship fund recruiting Detroit (and other Michigan) leaders to come to the conference to share and to learn. But Local First
in Grand Rapids is a national powerhouse network whose work is an example around the country. The collaborative work of the 600 members of Local First has proven that even the forces of recession and industrial decline are no match for the economic power of a thriving community of innovative locally owned businesses. By having the conference in Grand Rapids we’ll all get to experience that — to touch, smell, taste what real prosperity can look like in this former Rust Belt city.
: As I know that you spend a lot of time traveling the country, I’m wondering what areas you feel we have the most to learn from. I hear a lot, for instance, about the Intervale Food Hub
in Vermont. What, if anything, can we learn from them? And what other regions can we appropriate ideas from?
: Intervale’s work is powerful because it took underutilized land and a dream of a city to meet 10% of its food demand through local production, and it accomplished this by creating and bringing together a whole range of locally owned, community-serving businesses that worked collaboratively to build a local food system specific to the needs and assets of Burlington.
Farmer training and support was one key component of their success, as with another model we profiled, Appalachian Harvest Network
, taking former tobacco farmers and training them instead to become organic food growers for local and regional consumption. It’s an unlikely story but it’s been a big success in terms of local food access and rural economic development.
: I’m curious to know what you make of American Express’s well-financed, annual Small Business Saturday
campaign. I’m torn. On one hand, I think it’s good that they’re giving national exposure to the importance of locally-owned business, but, on the other, it’s just one damned day. And it kind of feels, at least to me, like the movement is getting co-opted. Are you sensing that the “buy local” movement is at risk of being taken over? I mean we have malls now with signs saying “Buy Local.” How do we keep the waters from getting muddied, and the whole thing becoming meaningless?
: This is an interesting question. American Express asked for BALLE’s endorsement of the day, and after a lot of discussion with American Express representatives and our community, we decided not to. Certainly, they have reached a very large national audience with their Small Business Saturday campaign, and it does get people talking about small business, if not local and independent ownership. What we think is most important is to help the public connect this one day to the work happening on Main Streets around the country to support independent businesses throughout the year. Several dozen local business networks came together to create the Shift Your Shopping holiday campaign as our movement’s answer — a campaign that represented more than 38,000 businesses across the U.S. and Canada. You can find out more about that campaign here
: If I could take the opportunity to ask you an Ypsi specific question…. As you and I have discussed before, a great many Zingerman’s employees live in Ypsilanti. (I believe more than half, right?) While I know that there’s some synergy to be had, having all of your various enterprises co-located in Ann Arbor, might it make sense, at some point, to put some portion of your business in Ypsi? I know that it would be difficult to decouple the Bakehouse from Zingerman’s Mail Order, for instance, but I think that it would be awesome if you did your baking here… maybe on Water Street.
: It would actually be easier and more realistic to move our Mail Order operation to Ypsi, and that is a possibility. I still would really like to have a Zingerman’s presence in Ypsilanti and I believe that it will happen at some point. Although I do worry about being viewed as an unwanted outsider.
: Is there anything else that I should have asked?
: What does BALLE mean when it talks about Real Prosperity vs False Prosperity?
Consolidated, distant ownership
Benefiting only a few
Depleting natural resources
Homogenizing, loss of heritage
Dollars leave the local economy
Diverse, local ownership
Improving quality of life for all
Protecting the natural resources we all need
Unique culture, pride of place
Dollars stay in local economy
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