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‘Buy local’ movement gives new life to corner stores

Communities urge residents to think and spend locally in a bid to boost area businesses.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent / December 1, 2009

Farmer Glenn Cook stands in the produce section of his farm stand in the big barn at Cider Hill Farm. Many local businesses buy their produce from the farm. As part of the buy-local movement, this small town north of Boston will start Amesbury First next year to encourage residents and local businesses to support local merchants.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Amesbury, Mass.

This working-class town of 18,000 on Boston’s North Shore has a plan for revitalizing its industrial sector, which long ago bade goodbye to textiles, carriage manufacturing, and a hat factory. It starts with an unlikely target: residents’ spending habits.

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Local merchants’ “Amesbury First” campaign, due to launch early next spring, aims to get downtown bustling again by inspiring residents to do more shopping there – and less at chain stores in nearby New Hampshire. As more cash moves among local businesses, town boosters say, Amesbury will grow more prosperous and become a destination for shoppers and manufacturers alike.

“The initial goal is to get everybody – business owners, residents – spending money in their town,” says Stefanie McCowan, executive director of the Amesbury Chamber of Commerce. “Then the more people hear ‘Amesbury’ [as a place for business], it becomes natural for somebody to want to move their large industrial business here or bring operations that are going to help support our tax base.”

As recession gives way to the prospect of a slow recovery, communities are increasingly giving traditional development a turbo boost. In addition to courting outside businesses to get more wages and money flowing into their local economies, they’re also looking to increase the local money flow in hopes it will create jobs – and perhaps even lure outside businesses. This practical, two-pronged strategy is taking hold in Canada and the United States, involving entire provinces, like Saskatchewan, as well as small cities and towns in states as diverse as Vermont and North Carolina.

“If you asked what they’re doing to grow their economies, historically they would have said: ‘We’re recruiting business,’ ” says Billy Ray Hall, president of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center in Raleigh. “Now they’ll talk about: ‘We’re growing our existing businesses [in part by recirculating funds locally], and if we have an opportunity to recruit a business, we will aggressively pursue that, too.’ ”

To make the transition, communities have to measure their economies in new ways, notably their “leakage” – the amount of local money that moves to faraway hubs of commerce. Successful towns and cities minimize leakage by making sure most dollars spent locally recirculate to other area businesses. Less successful ones have plenty of leakage as dollars get spent once locally, then disappear.