Interview with new Think Local First director, Ingrid Ault

    Over the past week or so, I’ve been exchanging emails with Ingrid Ault, the director of the locally-owned business advocacy group Think Local First. Following, with her permission, is our exchange…

    Mark: It’s my understanding that a few communities in the United States are considering, or have recently passed laws that would keep national chains, and businesses that are not primarily locally owned, out of their downtowns. I’m curious as to what you think about this trend, if it can be called that. While we’re working to bolster our local businesses, should we also be looking to somehow impede the unchecked growth of national chains with legislation?

    Ingrid: Formula business restrictions are in place in several communities throughout the U.S. and can take different approaches:

    • the complete ban of formula/chain stores,

    • restricting only certain areas of a community (historic districts),

    • allowing only a certain number in the area (capping),

    • or permitting them as long as they not look or operate like any other branch in the country.

    Currently 20 or so communities have enacted variations of the above mentioned. Those that have been successful engaged the community to determine their wants and needs and written the results into the ordinance itself. It should articulate the public purposes of the law and how the restrictions will fulfill those purposes. Therefore, for it to be meaningful and legally defendable, the citizens would determine whether this type of action is appropriate for their community.

    These types of restrictions may be a hard sell in our current economic climate. The good news is 75% of new jobs being created right now come from entrepreneurs. Perhaps supporting business development, offering support services to existing businesses and educating the public about the importance to supporting local businesses is a better use of our limited resources. But ultimately this decision should come from the community itself.

    Mark: Here in Ypsi, for the past three years, we’ve run an annual “Buy Local” campaign, with some degree of success. At least the anecdotal evidence would seem to indicate that people are beginning to realize that it matters where they spend their money, and that spending in their communities, as opposed to giving their hard earned dollars to WalMart, might ultimately be in their best interest. So, I think this is happening already, but how can we accelerate this evolution? What kinds of campaigns should we expect from Think Local First?

    Ingrid: The good news in this economic downturn is folks are more open that ever before to the “buy local” message. I believe the pivotal moment occurred when gas prices spiked to $4+ dollars a gallon. People began to think in terms of distance, which translated to local. We have seen evidence of this in the interest of others wanting to work with us or to join us at Think Local First.

    One example are the relationships that have been developed with local Chambers of Commerce and merchant associations. We are thinking creatively to pool our sources to maximize the “buy local” message. Partnerships are springing up in places not seen before. Our members are working together and learning about each other so that if they aren’t able to service the customer, they can forward them to someone local who can. The goal is to keep as many dollars recirculating in Washtenaw County as possible.

    Another bright spot is the invitations that Think Local First has had to come and speak to groups about our message. I recently was interviewed on the Lynn Rivers Show, which was a great opportunity to reach a broader audience. And the Ann Arbor Chamber of commerce invited me to participate in their monthly Morning Edition series last November. Each event begets more and more supporters. It’s an exciting time at Think Local First!

    Mark: You touch on two things that are very much at the forefront of my mind these days. The first is the cost of gas. I absolutely believe that we need to get the per-gallon cost back up to $4 in order to make any real headway relative to putting truly sustainable solutions in place, and I’ve had many discussions this past year with folks as to how we see that accomplished. It hadn’t occurred to me before, however, that locally-owned businesses might participate in a coalition to make something like that happen, whether it be in the form of an increased gas tax, or the setting of a $4 per gallon floor on the cost of fuel (ideally with proceeds going toward the production of alternative energy infrastructure and mass transit). At any rate, I just thought that was worth mentioning.

    More importantly for this conversation, I’ve also been thinking lately about projects touching a number of different locally-owned companies and how we as a community might do a better job of sharing them. I’ve wanted to write an article since Christmas, for instance, about one particular project that I’m aware of that involved four entities in Ypsilanti: Maggies’s Organics, VG Kids, Invisible Engines, and the People’s Food Co-Op. The project involved a scarf idea that Maggie’s had pitched successfully to the Whole Foods chain. The organic cotton for the scarves came from Maggies, the design was done by local creative firm Invisible Engines, the printing was done by VG Kids, and, ultimately, they were sold locally by the People’s Food Co-Op (as well as most Whole Foods stores around the country). I think that’s a fantastic story for us to be telling, in which four great small businesses were able to benefit from one project, and I’m sure there are others. I’d just really like to find a channel for getting stories like that out.

    Do you have any ideas as to how we might be able to leverage stories like this to encourage more local entrepreneurs to consider extending their networks into new areas and think creatively about partnerships that keep money circulating in the local community? And, when we do have these successes, how we collect, store and share them?

    Ingrid: Wow. Great questions.

    First, keeping gas at $4 a gallon would certainly move efficiency further and at a faster pace. I just spent this weekend shopping for a new car and the average mileage for many cars is shocking and downright horrifying. The good news is change in this area is on it’s way. The short term increase did jolt many folks into understanding the necessity of making changes in their lives to better the future. And with all of the bad press for the Big 3 automakers (or has this moniker changed) and the bailout I believe they will be held accountable like never before. A good first step is the change in the leadership for the Committee on Energy and Commerce from Rep. John Dingell to California Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California is promising.

    As for the second part of your question, I firmly believe that the only way we are going to survive the current economic crisis is to think creatively and by supporting one another. There is power in numbers. When you partner together with other folks, that allows each entity to focus on what they do best, offering superior outcomes with maximum results due the collaborative resources of all the parties. That is why I am excited about the partnerships we are forming every day. When we all work together for the common good with a common goal, we can’t help but make an impact. And the more that join the movement the quicker the tipping point occurs and momentum can’t be stopped. The Obama campaign is an excellent example. They brilliantly demonstrated to the single voter that they are important and they do matter. An even better example is the Franken v. Coleman race for Senator in Minnesota. If you never felt your one vote mattered, that was dispelled in this example.

    Further, there are example after example supporting that “main street” is going to be behind the tipping point for our economy. Roughly 3/4 of all jobs created are coming from the little guy. This is empowering news for everyone. The other positive aspect from these times is the status quo no longer works, so people are willing to take risks they have never done before. This is when you see advances in growth and movements. The “buy local” message is here to stay and will only grow stronger day by day. I am excited to be in the position I am in to forward our message. Only good things can come from this. They may not happen as quickly as we like, but by standing by one another we can’t loose.

    Mark: As I was reading your response, I began to wonder if Think Local First, or perhaps the folks at BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies), had taken a position on the proposed Obama recovery package. Apparently it’s putting an emphasis on infrastructure, energy and so-called green jobs, but I’m wondering whether or not it really moves things forward relative to other things that matter on the sustainability front, like re-localizing food production, and rebuilding the kinds of complex local business ecosystems that we once had.

    Ingrid: BALLE is actually at the forefront of the green job movement. At last years conference there was an emphasis on folks who had created green jobs. One example was a project that reclaimed waterfront property in Brooklyn, NY and rehabilitating it into park space including community gardens. Another involved a woman who began a bee-keeping program to provide employment for recently released convicts in Chicago. Both of these are excellent examples of land use that serves dual purposes. We also had an chance to visit the Food Project in Boston that provides opportunities for kids to learn how to grow, prepare and sell food that they have cultivated. As is clear, BALLE believes this is an essential component to economic recovery.

    As for Think Local First we are working with local food groups to see how we can support and promote their work. On Wednesday January 28th we hosted a fundraiser at the Michigan Theater where the film Asparagus! Stalking the American Life was shown. There was also an opportunity to meet and talk to the director after the film.

    The following day there was a Food Summit that brought together folks who were all working in this area but had never been organized at this level before. It was a great opportunity to match up people and groups who are working on the same types of issues, as we will all be more effective when we can stop duplicating our work. Hopefully this was a good first step in making that happen. Both of these events where a collaboration between TLF, Slow Food Huron Valley and the Homegrown Festival.

    We are interested in cultivating relationships involving food related issues. One project we are actively working on is to produce a local food guide. This movement is right on pace with the “buy Local” movement and now is the time to partner and support one another, as it is a logical next step.

    Mark: So what else should people in the MM.com audience know about Think Local First, and you plans here locally over the course of the next year? What are you planning on? Where’s the potential locally?

    Ingrid: We are hoping to spend more time offering educational opportunities to
    current members, providing them with tools to keep them competitive in this ever-changing marketplace. If all goes well, we should be announcing this project in the next few months.

    We are also working to extend our outreach by creating a new branch that will focus on education and advocacy to the general public. Folks are open to the local message, we just need to help them understand how to define “local”. An example is current marketing by Fifth Third Bank. They are promoting themselves as the “local” bank as they understand the power of the message. For someone who had been hearing local, but doesn’t understand how to define it, they may be susceptible to supporting businesses that are using this ploy, thinking they are doing the right thing. That is the next hurdle that we face.

    Finally, we are looking at creating a blog as a means for members and interested folks to communicate their ideas and tips about what is happening. We hope to have this up and running in the next month or two. And I would also like to mention our  e-newsletter which is distributed every three to four weeks. This is another great avenue for folks to stay up to date with what is happening with Think Local First. Anyone interested can sign up at www.thinklocalfirst.net.

    These are just a few of the items in the hopper. Things are moving quickly and we are making partnerships everyday. The momentum is high and we are just trying to keep up right now! Thanks for the opportunity to share our ideas and work with you and your audience. It has been a pleasure.

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      9 Comments

      1. Paw
        Posted February 2, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        What about a big annual event, maybe outside somewhere, featuring all the locally owned companies in Ypsi/Arbor? It wouldn’t have to be like Art Fair. It could be in a field somewhere. Maybe it would be a select list, of like 20, who are doing interesting, good work. And every year it could change. Maybe people could vote on who to showcase. It would be a great way to learn about a bunch of diverse companies at one time, meet owners, talk about projects, etc.

      2. Ol' E Cross
        Posted February 2, 2009 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

        I should say this was a real nice post, even if Mark talks as much in interviews as Terri Gross, just didn’t have much to add,

      3. Posted February 2, 2009 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

        I’m torn on the legislative approach. On one hand I agree with Michael Shuman, who suggests that we stay positive, and focus not on how evil the corporate chains are, but how wonderful locally-owned businesses are. But, on the other, I can see the appeal of putting laws in place to protect business districts. I was surprised to hear that 20 communities had now gone that route. That’s a much bigger number than I was expecting… If the economy wasn’t so terrible, I might suggest that we do something similar here, but, given the current situation, I can’t see keeping a potential tax-paying entity out of downtown… Still, the idea of a Burger King on Water Street rubs me the wrong way.

      4. Posted February 3, 2009 at 12:28 am | Permalink

        Yes, this is a tough one. I believe it is feasible from the standpoint of designing boundaries that would meet the citizen desires for the area. They could be smallish areas, much like many historic districts or larger areas similar to DDA boundaries. Or as is the case with fast food outlets, ordinances could be rewritten to prohibit drive thus in certain districts, i.e. DDA boundaries. (This could be done.)

        However, the real question is who is going to fund this work? The Ypsilanti Planning Department has far more work than it can handle now. And unfortunately this is beyond the scope of what Think Local First can do right now. (I’m only part time and this would require a large amount of work.) But perhaps it is worthy of doing some limited research now to create a plan for the future. If it is well crafted, I believe it can work without driving away potential growth.

        Just a little more feedback that I wanted to add earlier, but didn’t want to get too much off message.

      5. Paw
        Posted February 3, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        How much work would really be required, Ingrid? Assuming we could access the wording that these other communities have used successfully in the past, might it not be fairly straightforward to propose language, for instance, prohibiting fast food chains downtown? Of course, we’d need to have a marketing budget to get the word out prior to the vote.

      6. Posted February 3, 2009 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        Best practices would indicate that not one, nor a group of people would make this decision. To legally stand up to challenges, the best way is to ask the citizens for feedback from a charrette conducted in the community that you are proposing the changes too. Then it becomes the will of the people which can be written into the document, thus giving it weight under opposition.

        If you are serious about moving forward, this might make a great class project for EMU’s studio planning class for under grads and graduate students. Associate Professor, Dr. Jones presents projects once a year that have real life examples for students to learn this process. This might be a good first step in organizing this type of data required to move forward.

        To better understand why it is important to follow this process I suggest you see this site: http://www.newrules.org/retail/formula.html

        Finally, these suggestions are for formula business restrictions which are more complex than simply amending an ordinance to prevent drive thrus. For example, with the latter, your legal standing could be traffic related issues. And the restriction would be ALL drive thrus not just fast food. But I’m not a planner, so this is not really my area of expertise. These are just suggestions based on my experience and education.

      7. Steph's Dad
        Posted February 3, 2009 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

        Seems hard to sell in this climate, but it makes sense to have some of the background work done now, before we hear that BigLots wants to own a piece of Water Street.

      8. Posted February 23, 2009 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

        According to the new issue of the Think Local First newsletter, Ingrid will be meeting holding regular office hours at Zingerman’s Next Door. Here’s the relevant clip:

        Think Local First is initiating a new program which will provide an opportunity to meet our executive director, Ingrid Ault. She will be available each Thursday that falls on an even day each month. Stop by Zingerman’s Next Door from 7 am to 9 am and say hello.

        Feel free to stop in anytime during these hours to say hello, ask questions, become a member, or even to air a grievance. She would like to learn more about the members of Think Local First and hopes this will be a casual opportunity to meet and greet existing, new and potential members and friends.

        Look for Ingrid on the second floor of the building at 422 Detroit St. in Ann Arbor (near E. Kingsley) in the front room, facing the street. We look forward to meeting you soon!

        And, yes, I agree, “each Thursday that falls on an even day each month” is weird.

      9. galan
        Posted June 21, 2009 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

        Not sure where this comment should go but I went to the 2 year anniversary of Dos Hermanos Market today in the parking lot behind their store. It was a great celebration with a HUGE Mariachi Band, singers, dancing and a moon walk machine. It was fun (and loud). A good thing to see this local business growing in reputation and success over the last two years. Congratulations to them!

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