By Danielle Kennedy
On October 21, New England Local Business Forum (NELEN) returned to its roots in Portsmouth, NH for its 8th semiannual gathering. What started three years ago in the same city with a handful of local business leaders had grown on this sunny fall day to a collaboration of 30+ people from 17 Local First networks representing every state in New England.
This year, NELEN was even graced by two special guests, American Independent Business Alliance(AMIBA) cofounders Jeff Milchen and Jennifer Rockne, all the way from Big Sky Montana. After a morning meet-and-greet over coffee and pastries (locally catered, of course!), we all settled into Portsmouth’s gorgeous LEED Green Certified library for introductions and the morning panel, How Local Business Owners Can Engage the Movement and Customers. The great thing about Local First networks is that so many of the leaders are local business owners themselves. And who better to address the issues local businesses face than a lineup of four leader/proprietors themselves?
A couple of the panelists reminded us that Local itself can be a branding in marketing. Tom Roberts of Beach Pea Bakery in Kittery, ME reminded us that pragmatism was key in this sense; while independent business has a duty to be socially responsible, it is still a business in the end and all would be for not if it is not successful commercially. Jody Breneman, co-owner of family-owned and run G. Willikers! Toy Shop in our host city told owners to keeping generating buzz about their small business: “Just keep talking about it.” For Jody, Buy Local is all about the small shifts. She shared an anecdote about a local couple on their way to buy a particular Christmas gift for their son at Toys”R”Us. Upon hearing a radio spot reminding them to buy local for the holidays, the couple, reminded, turned around the car and headed straight for local G. Willikers! instead.
This point brings me into the most important discussion of the day – that of the 2nd annual region collaboration on the Shift Your Shopping holiday campaign and the first national partnership on the campaign. The campaign originally started in response to the American Express Small Business Saturday (to which SBN Boston executive director Laury Hammel half-jokingly suggested the slogan this year: “Support Small Business Saturday – Use Cash”). The credit card company ignored the demands and stipulations of NELEN, so we figured local does local better anyway and launched Shift Your Shopping. How do you do local on a national scale during the most commercialized time of the year? Our SYS website (designed by Somerville’s own Andy Pyman of Truly Good Solutions – and newest SLF board member!) will have a focus on individual community stories. It’s always about the local, people! With this campaign, we want to show that the individuals’ local stories are part of something bigger.
In the spirit of Occupy, we encourage consumers to Populate Main Street. As American Express and the like try to jump on our bandwagon, our biggest challenge as the grassroots is make sure you as the public stay informed and understand true ways to support local. Wrapping up a productive day, a group of us did what we do best and support local business, the Portsmouth Brewery.
What struck me about the NELEN gathering was that rather than a conference, it felt like an intimate get-together of like-minded friends – and it was. As one NE Local First leader proclaimed over Portsmouth brews, “We’ve brought 17 organizations together. New England really has something special here.”