Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Pressing need to refine and define what "Buying Local" means

I keep having a debate in the context of Eastern Market, serving on the Community Advisory Committee, where one of the inside merchants argues adamantly that the market building needs to be positioned for marketing purposes in terms of "buying local" because after all, all the inside businesses are locally owned, operated by independent business operators. I counter that in the context of food marketing, buying local is about local sourcing--selling food items produced in a 100 to 150 mile "foodshed" in the Chesapeake region.

The Gazette newspapers have a massive ad from National Harbor, touting how this outdoor shopping mall managed by a locally owned firm (Peterson Companies) anchored by a national business (Gaylord Entertainment), focused on selling a sanitized Washington experience through proximity to the actual urban experience that is Washington, DC proper is "buying local."
National Harbor "Go Local" ad, Gazette newpapers 6/22/2011

Who owns a store and how "local" it is does matter in terms of what is called the economic multiplier effect. A locally owned business sources more products and services locally, thereby further contributing to the local economy. A nationally owned business sources few products and services locally, and repatriates profits to the corporate headquarters community, thereby contributing less to the local economy per dollar of transaction, compared to the locally owned business.

What a store sells product-wise and how the products are merchandised matters as well.

Probably other people have created a typology for how to evaluate "buy local" claims. Here's a first pass by me:

Ownership of the business
- local
- nonlocal

Scale of the business
- single store
- chainlet
- regional chain (includes franchised locations)
- national chain (includes franchised locations)

Product mix
- mass merchandise items (Scott toilet paper, Levis jeans, etc.)
- specialty merchandise (e.g., boutique lines not commonly found in mass merchandise stores, such as the clothing lines sold at the Need Company men's clothing store in Carytown, Richmond, or the new Trohv housewares and furniture store in Takoma DC)

Source of products
- locally sourced items (sausages produced locally from locally grown family farm, designer clothing items produced locally sold at a store in NYC, etc.)
- nationally sourced

How products are presented to the customer
- personally
- impersonally

General authenticity factors
- e.g., if you market your business as "Washington" does that mean Washington, DC proper or the Washington Metropolitan region, which includes cities and suburbs in Maryland and Virginia (and some counties in West Virginia and Pennsylvania too).

These are the various dimensions on which claims of localness and uniqueness should be judged.

There is no question that a butcher in Eastern Market selling meat products is locally owned, and employs people in the regional economy (it happens that most of the vendors don't live in DC anymore), and how it provides items to its customers (someone, even the owner, waits on each customer individually) is different from how a supermarket does it, but in terms of how the locavore movement is developing, because most of the inside vendors sell products that come from the same sources that supply supermarket chains, the food items that they sell can't be considered local.

On the other hand (and most other public markets do this), they could work to source more local products, thereby supporting the local economy more intricately than they do now. That's what many restaurants do. For example, the article "COMMUNITY FEED: Cafés get local by sourcing regional ingredients" from the November 2009 issue of the coffee trade magazine Fresh Cup starts with this paragraph:

The eggs that are used to cook waffles and fluffy egg dishes at the Guerilla Cafe in Berkeley, California are bought from farmer Art Davis' stand at an outdoor farm market up the street. Cherries grown four hours north of Milwaukee, in an area called Door County, are baked into scones and put into pastry cases at Alterra Coffee Roasters' nine Milwaukee-area stores. And at Wildflower Cafe & Coffeehouse in Mason, Ohio, the Farmers Market Salad is full of whatever is available at the week's market...

I've wondered about this idea for awhile why restaurants (and the ice cream shop) in Takoma Park don't feature ingredients sourced from the Sunday Farmer's Market in Old Town Takoma. That's the kind of initiative frequently mentioned in association with farmers markets in NYC, San Francisco, Santa Monica, and Los Angeles.

Austin 360, a website associated with the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, has a story about apparel stores doing "private label" development in association with exclusive clothing lines. See "Austin stores are turning to private label and exclusive garments to keep their inventory fresh."

The Market NYC, also known as the Young Designer's Market, is a flea market for small crafts producers. Somewhere in NYC there is a store that sells items only produced by small designers located in Greater New York City. There are arts/crafts stores that do this too, located in various places.

When it comes to authenticity and the economic multiplier effect, National Harbor in Prince George's County is a tricky question. First, every place is authentic. But the issue isn't that places exist, it's how they are organized in terms of their business concept, focus, and what they provide.

While on the water, National Harbor is basically an outdoor shopping center and "resort." It's not designed to be any different than other shopping destinations, other than the fact that it is on the Potomac River. Most of the stores and restaurant concepts have no connection to the Washington region (Mayorga Coffee and Art Whino are exceptions) and won't ever. But the center is unique, because they have a Peeps/Mike&Ike store...

Gaylord Corporation, the main hotel and convention center operator there, is a "national" corporation with interests in Nashville, Florida, and elsewhere. As they develop relationships with national firms as clients, they cross-sell their use of other Gaylord properties.

People go to National Harbor to be near to DC, but not in DC. While I understand their "Go Local" program to promote the existence of their conference facility for meetings, I find it incredibly laughable that they actively market staying at National Harbor to see "Washington, DC's" fireworks for the Fourth of July. Washington, DC is the national capital, National Harbor is not.

The issue is complicated by the fact that as a community, Prince George's County lacks its own community center. No one town functions for the County such as how Alexandria functions within Northern Virginia, or how Bethesda and Silver Spring function within Montgomery County as places to go, be, play, and walk, as opposed to other areas within Montgomery County that are automobile-centric, e.g., Lakeforest Mall or Montgomery Mall.

In any case, people need to be more sophisticated in terms of their expectations of what "Buy Local" means, and businesses need to be held to higher standards when it comes to marketing the "localness" of their businesses.

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