In our capitalistic society, the tendency is to find the best deal, spend the least amount of time, and avoid the most complications. But are we better for it? Three Oak Cliff residents have banded together to challenge neighbors to change their mindsets about how we do business, with hopes that the process will change both our lives and our neighborhood.
What is "local?"
It’s a popular word these days, finding its way into promotional materials and onto retail labels. Food is “grown locally”; products are “made locally”; and vendors “reside locally”.
But what does that actually mean? Like other trendy terms, such as “green” and “organic”, the meaning is based on who is doing the defining. (How else to understand a bottle of chemically-infused cleaning solution on a grocery store shelf that advertises itself as “eco-friendly”?)
In a large metropolitan area like Dallas, does “local” refer to anything within the city’s 342.5 square miles, or does the definition hit closer to home — down the street and around the block?
Perhaps it’s a question of impact: If a mom-and-pop shop in Snider Plaza shuts its doors, neighbors here might not notice. But when a longstanding Oak Cliff business like Bishop Arts Floral goes away, the loss is felt.
And that becomes the greater issue — not simply how to define “local” but also what it looks like for each person to support his or her local community.
Does it mean shopping at Dallas retailers instead of online so that sales taxes will benefit the neighborhood library branch? Eating at a longtime neighborhood establishment once a week to help it stay in business? Buying groceries at Tom Thumb because the rewards card program provides a percentage of the money spent to a neighborhood school or nonprofit?
Three Oak Cliff residents are launching a campaign to try to answer these questions, or rather, let neighborhood businesses and businesspeople answer the question for themselves. Shannon Neffendorf, Lauren Nitschke and Randall Simpson came together to explore ways to support businesspeople in the neighborhood, and each has a vested interest — Neffendorf and his wife, Jenni, founded Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters; Nitschke and her husband, Gary, own Nitschke Natural Beef; and Simpson is a real estate broker who concentrates on properties in North Oak Cliff.
Their hope is to encourage other Oak Cliff residents to “think longer term,” Simpson says. Buying merchandise from a chain hardware store may cost a little less and even be a little more convenient, but eventually, it will put the neighborhood hardware store out of business.
The tradeoff is that “instead of business owners you know and socialize with, you’ve got minimum-wage employees stocking shelves,” Simpson says. “There’s more to evaluate than just the price you pay at the register. That’s the whole reason we’re raising the question — to get people to think, ‘What is the cost?’”
As the three pursued the definition of “local”, they began to believe that local means not just doing business with neighborhood stores, but also doing business with neighbors, so that “you know the guy who roasts your coffee, you know the guy who raises your beef, and you know the guy who handles your real estate transactions,” Nitschke says.
“If I have a problem with Target, I have to call a 1-800 number and talk to who knows who in who knows what country. If I have a problem with my coffee, I call Shannon.”
This forms a level of accountability between merchant and consumer that a chain can’t duplicate, says Vikki Espinosa, Stevens Park resident and owner of Bishop Arts Custom Framing. Just about all of her business comes from neighborhood residents, she says, and Espinosa regularly bumps into her clients at restaurants or while out running errands. This makes her feel “more at home,” she says, but it also ups the ante.
“You’ve gotta do good work when you’re going to run into your clients all the time,” Espinosa says. “We’re a small micro community here, and everybody here talks. If you do something not so good, word gets out really fast — and when you do something good, word also gets out really fast.”
The loyalty of Oak Cliff residents isn’t bad for business, either. Many of Espinosa’s customers tell her they are glad the neighborhood has a frame shop because they want to spend their dollars in Oak Cliff. And she responds in kind.
“I sometimes tell people, ‘Thanks for keeping it in the Cliff,’” Espinosa says. “Shopping local to me means shopping at individually owned retail establishments, not chain stores — not only shopping in our zip codes, but patronizing our neighbors’ businesses.”
The general idea is that spending money at locally owned shops and restaurants not only creates a living for the people who live down the street and around the block, but also keeps more money in the community. And there’s more than anecdotal evidence supporting this notion.
In 2002, economic analysis and strategic planning firm Civic Economics began studying the likely economic impact of a proposed Borders bookstore in Austin, Texas, at Lamar and 6th, the same corner where independent stores BookPeople and Waterloo Records are located. The firm found that for every $100 in consumer spending at Borders, the total local impact was $13. But the same amount spent at Waterloo or BookPeople yielded $45 — more than three times the chain’s impact to the local economy.
Civic Economics conducted a similar study in 2004, this time focusing on Andersonville, an eclectic but rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Chicago. The results were comparable: Of $100 spent at chains, $43 funneled back into the local economy, while the same amount rung up at mom-and-pops generated $68 into Chicago’s economy.
Such findings prompted Andersonville neighbors to support what was nicknamed a “little-box” ordinance that would restrict retail chains from setting up shop in the community, especially along pedestrian streets and in historic districts. Andersonville residents have not yet been successful in their quest, but similar ordinances, often called “formula business” ordinances, are active in the downtown areas of Fredericksburg, Texas, and Bristol, R.I.; the neighborhood business districts of San Francisco; and the towns of Chesapeake City, Md. and Port Townsend, Wash.
Legal restrictions such as these are difficult to enact because they are plagued by debates over property rights and definitions of distinctive areas. Grassroots initiatives are much more common, such as the recently launched 3/50 project that draws on the local economic impact findings in the Andersonville study. The project poses this question: “What three independently owned businesses would you miss if they disappeared?”
With that thought in mind, the project encourages people to make $50 in purchases every month from three locally owned businesses, based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor that if half the employed population followed suit, their actions would generate more than $42.6 billion in revenue. And, according to the Austin and Andersonville statistics, the more money spent in our neighborhood, the more of those billions go to work in our community.
In one of her recent email newsletters, Make Shop & Studio owner Julie McCullough Kim included information on the 3/50 project, encouraging her customers to implement this philosophy. Her Bishop Arts store, which stocks handmade goods, thrives on the concept of supporting local and independent artisans. But no one can live 100 percent local, she says.
“I can’t find a zipper made in the United States,” McCullough Kim says. “I want to help people understand you can’t just go cold turkey — it’s not quite possible yet. Just take small steps.”
Even the neighborhood residents behind Oak Cliff’s campaign to “live local” readily admit their small businesses wouldn’t function if they were dependent solely on the local economy.
“We can’t raise those cows in our back yard,” says Nitschke, a Kessler Plaza resident who raises grass-fed cattle with her husband on his family ranch in Oklahoma.
Likewise, Neffendorf can’t buy coffee beans grown in Dallas County, but when it came time to buy a coffee roaster, he decided to purchase it from the closest dealer, in Oklahoma City, “because I could drive three hours to go get it and to train on it,” he says.
“I can’t get beef from Oak Cliff because we don’t have a ranch here on Davis, but I can get beef from owners who live here in Oak Cliff.”
Buying local “is more a direction you move toward,” Neffendorf says, adding that as more neighbors adopt this mindset, it will encourage more entrepreneurs to build businesses in our neighborhood.
It also encourages local businesses to support other local businesspeople, he says, and to more clearly define their support.
“A restaurant in Deep Ellum advertises buying local products and actually list some — and on that menu is Sam’s Club,” Neffendorf says.
Attempts to live locally often have either the intentional or unintentional byproduct of vilifying chains. This doesn’t cohere with the missions of some pro-business groups like the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce, which spans hundreds of square miles south and west of the Trinity River, and whose members include chains, independent businesses, and pretty much anyone who wants to pay membership dues.
Neffendorf, Nitschke and Simpson approached the chamber, hoping to team up in some kind of local effort, but though president Bob Stimson says he wishes them well, the chamber’s focus on Oak Cliff “is a little bit broader,” and the organization “has to take a strong advocacy position for the entire area.”
Projects like the Dallas Inland Port and the University of North Texas’ Dallas campus “are hugely important for Oak Cliff. But they may not be the focus of the Jefferson Boulevard Merchants Association, for example,” Stimson says. He sees the value in pro-business organizations with both broad and narrow scopes.
“The idea of having smaller areas where there are business advocacy groups certainly makes sense, and furthers the main goal in a concentrated area.”
Living locally is not just about money, Nitschke says; it’s about community, “and we’re just built that way.”
Neffendorf says people are much more likely to engage in conversation at a farmers market than a grocery store.
“What if we looked at the economy from the perspective of happiness, spiritual health and mental health?” he asks. “The economy has grown and grown, and you think that would lead to a better quality of life, but we’re less connected, and we’re suffering for it.”
Obviously, the group’s desire to campaign for local businesses isn’t a solely philosophical or philanthropic pursuit. But neither is it a ruse to grow their companies, they say.
“We’ll benefit from pushing local, but it’s not strictly a business move,” Neffendorf says. “We also see the value in it.”
FURTHER RESOURCES FOR HELPING NEIGHBORHOOD RESIDENTS DEFINE AND BUY LOCAL:
Live Local OAK CLIFF
Neighborhood business owners Shannon Neffendorf, Lauren Nitschke and Randall Simpson sent a list of questions to neighborhood businesses, asking how they do business locally. Neighbors can read the questionnaire answers on the blog site localoakcliff.wordpress.com.
“Our hope is that this will give Cliff dwellers a place online to gather pertinent information on which they can base their decisions (purchasing or otherwise) about whom they choose to support with their minutes and cents,” the website states. Neighborhood businesses can contact them via the blog site to learn how to participate.
Putting your money where your mouth is
Another way to define “local” is with the creation of local currency, which some communities find stimulates independent businesses, even during a recession. Folks in Southern Berkshire, Mass., for example, created BerkShares, available in $1, $5, $10, $20 and $50 denominations. Local businesses that accept BerkShares denote this in their storefront windows, and 12 local banks exchange federal currency for BerkShares (the exchange rate is $9 for every 10 BerkShares, which amounts to a 10 percent discount rewarding people for shopping locally). Creators of the program have noted that the community has experienced an increase use of BerkShares since the economic downturn.
The American Independent Business Alliance defines a “local” independent business as one that has private, employee, community or cooperative ownership; is owned in majority by area residents; in which full decision-making function for the business lies within its owners; and has no more than six outlets and bases of operation within a single state.
The issue of who makes the decisions has hurt Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters a couple of times, neighborhood resident and owner Shannon Neffendorf says.
On two occasions, Oak Cliff restaurants contacted Neffendorf in hopes of carrying his coffee, but the ultimate decision makers, based outside of our neighborhood, decided to stick with brands they already were using.
“In both cases, the people working here recognized the value of having my coffee in their store, but it came down to convenience — the hassle of switching,” he says.