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An urgent call to 'buy local'

Job developer Michael Shuman seeks to rebuild struggling communities with home-grown businesses.

By Tim HoltContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 9, 2009

Michael Shuman is the Vice President for Enterprise Development Training & Development Corporation and is an advocate of 'localism.'

Michael Bonfigli/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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For Michael Shuman it was the equivalent of an earthquake. Seeking cheaper labor in Canada, Toronto-based Branscan Corp. threw 1,400 people out of work by closing two paper mills in Millinocket, Maine, in 2002. The unemployment rate in this region of central Maine skyrocketed to Depression era levels of nearly 40 percent.

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Mr. Shuman, an economist and job developer, was called in for damage control. Aided by an $8 million federal grant, he and his colleagues at Maine's Training and Development Corp. were able to help most of the laid-off workers get back on their feet. But the experience convinced Shuman to do what any sensible person might do after such a calamity: Build something that's earthquake-resistant.

To him, that involves locally owned businesses.

For the past five years, Shuman has been barnstorming across the United States, preaching the gospel of economic "localism." It's an appeal to community values as well as economic self-interest, a call to support locally owned businesses that don't outsource, don't pack up their businesses and leave on a moment's notice, and who recycle their customers' dollars back into the community.

Shuman describes his effort as "a political campaign that never ends." He speaks mostly in small rural communities, often desolate landscapes with shuttered mills and boarded-up storefronts. His campaign has put him in the epicenter of a debate about what's best for the economic health of a community: Locally owned businesses or large, multinational chain stores.

Shuman views struggling communities as untapped resources: vacant land available for new businesses or existing local businesses that want to expand, the numbers of unemployed people who can be hired by local businesses or who might start their own businesses.

"For years, economic developers have looked for new wealth from outside their communities and overlooked the huge opportunities in their own backyard," he says. "The localization movement encourages communities to take stock of these untapped resources. That's especially important as today's economic downturn increases the pressure on every town and city to do more with less."

He points to the Mount Shasta region of northern California, where a timber faller with a bad back started a successful boat repair business, and to Vermont, where two enterprising young mothers started a business weaving recycled fabric and old clothes into new ones.

Rachel Hooper, one of the owners of Burlington's Bobbin Sew Bar, went to hear Shuman speak before starting her business. "It was really inspiring to hear him talk about how small business owners can play an important and positive role in their communities," she says.

Shuman likes to cite a 2003 study by Civic Economics, a consulting and research firm. It examined what happened to every $100 spent at a chain bookstore and at a locally owned one in Austin, Texas. At the chain, only $13 went back into the local economy. At the local bookstore, it was $45.

Big box chains have raised their profile by spending big dollars. To compete, locally owned businesses are banding together for what one organizer calls "grass-roots guerrilla marketing." These low-budget efforts include posters touting the "Top 10 reasons to buy local" and bumper stickers that say "Buy local or bye-bye local." Discount coupon books featuring local businesses help bring new customers through the door, as do catalogs that list locally owned businesses.

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