Keeping dollars in Durango
As sales tax revenues cool, efforts to spend locally pick up steam

An employee at Pine Needle Mountaineering, on Main Avenue, hands some change to a customer on Tuesday. Several local groups are combining efforts to launch a campaign with the emphasis on patronizing independently owned businesses. Studies suggest that nearly twice as much of the money spent at these businesses stays in the community versus money spent at chain stores. Another part of the campaign will focus on keeping dollars in La Plata County./Photo by David Halterman

by Missy Votel

As the summer tourist season winds down and indicators point to a slowing national economy, efforts are under way to reinforce local buying habits.

For the last few months, an ad hoc committee made up of local business groups, government entities and environmental and sustainability organizations have been meeting to discuss a common goal: making Durango and La Plata County’s economies more self-sufficient. The joint effort, which was already being undertaken by some groups independently, was jump-started last spring by the Durango City Council’s request to explore ways to keep locally owned businesses vibrant and more dollars local.

“We had talked about the benefits of buying local for the locally owned businesses and the mom and pops and directed staff to begin discussions on a ‘Buy Local’ campaign,” said City Councilor Renee Parsons. “One concern was how big boxes were going to affect downtown businesses.”

Parsons said the effort is especially pertinent now, as the city’s summer sales tax revenues show a decline in growth over last year’s. Sales tax receipts for July 2007, the latest month for which they were available, were down nearly 1 percent over those from July 2006. June’s numbers also were sluggish, pegging only a 2.6 percent gain over June 2006’s numbers. “These latest sales tax numbers are raising a red flag for me and really tie into the importance of the whole ‘Buy Local’ angle,” said Parsons.

However, Bob Kunkel, the city’s Central Business District coordinator, isn’t so quick to paint a picture of doom and gloom. He points out that overall, the city’s year-to-date sales tax revenues are slightly ahead of those of 2006, which was a gangbuster year, posting double-digit gains over the previous year. “The numbers are up, but not up as much as they were last year,” he said. “This year is shaping up to be good and solid and we’re on pace, it’s just that 2006 was exceptionally strong.”

As far as the Central Business District is concerned, July numbers were 2 percent higher than July ’06, with year-to-date figures 3 percent higher than those of 2006.

Nevertheless, he said there has been a growing interest in a concerted buy local strategy, with the council’s call to action acting as the impetus. “Some groups, such as the independent business owners with their ‘America Unchained’ event, have been doing it for years, while others are just coming to the party,” he said. “The goal of the committee was to get everybody up to speed on ‘Buy Local.’”

Along with encouraging residents to buy from independent local businesses, work is under way on a campaign to encourage people to spend their dollars at stores in La Plata County, which helps generate sales tax revenue and jobs./Photo by David Halterman

The committee was made up of representatives from various groups, including downtown merchants and independent businesses, the Sustainability Alliance of Southwest Colorado, the Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College and the Durango Area Chamber of Commerce. “Our job was to explore everyone’s objectives and what their interests were in working together,” said Kunkel. Over the course of three meetings this summer, it was determined that the goal was twofold: to support independently owned businesses, and on a larger scale, keep local dollars in La Plata County. “We realized that there were basically two trains on parallel tracks to the same destination: that of a sustainable community, a sustainable economy and a healthy community,” said Kunkel. “They were compatible, but not combinable ideas.”

As a result, two groups came from the meetings, one with the objective of promoting independent local4 business and the other concentrating on the larger picture of spending local dollars in La Plata County. “They both have underlying themes of local independence, but the difference is that the La Plata County campaign addresses retail leakage, or loss, while the independent business campaign addresses the multiplier effect, or gain,” he said.

However, the two groups will be working in concert to ensure that their messages are the same, with the city providing funding to further their efforts via promotional materials and advertising. “The city is expecting to get a fund request from both groups,” said Kunkel.

Marcus Renner, of the FLC Environmental Center, said he will be focusing on the “buy local” part of the equation, which will work with independent local businesses. “We want to stress the higher return on investments from shopping independent, locally owned businesses,” he said. “Buying local not only helps the environment, but it promotes local self-sufficiency and is part of having a sustainable economy.”

He also pointed to the “multiplier effect,” whereby a higher percentage of money spent in local independent businesses stays in the local economy versus money spent at chain stores. Although he would like to see a study detailing what the effects are locally, he said a study in suburban Chicago showed that 71 cents of every dollar spent at locally owned, independent businesses stay in the community versus only 41 cents of every dollar spent at chain stores.

Renner said he ultimately envisions a web site, where locally owned independents can “self-report” on their sustainable practices, as well as a “coupon book” featuring deals at such businesses. “Fort Collins has a buy local coupon book that has been successful, and Bellingham, Wash, has a buy local campaign that has been enormously successful,” he said. “We want to see if we can bring some of those ideas to Durango.”

He also said there has been talk of forming a local independent business alliance that would fall under the umbrella of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, or BALLE. “It’s a nationwide coordinating network for locally owned, independent businesses,” he said. “It’s a way to learn from other communities and figure out how to make something work here.”

To learn more about that possibility, Renner said he and others interested in the buy local side of the equation will be attending a BALLE conference in Boulder at the end of the month. However, he said if such a plan comes to fruition, the emphasis will be on keeping things positive. “The thing with a lot of independent business alliances is that they can get anti-chain store,” he said. “But that’s not the intent. The goal is to highlight the high rate of return of shopping local, independent businesses, which can benefit everybody, including chain stores.”

Both Renner and Kunkel agreed that spending money at local chain stores is better than taking that money out of the county – which will be the focus of the second part of the campaign. Kunkel said this effort will include the Business Improvement District as well as the Chamber of Commerce and will he organized by the La Plata Economic Action Development Partnership, or LEAD. “The message will be, ‘What gets spent in La Plata County stays here,’” he said. “The money comes back not only in the form of taxes, but in jobs and nonprofits, who get donations from these local businesses.”

However, in order to differentiate the two efforts in the public’s eye, he said the “buy local” mantra will be reserved for referring to local, independently owned businesses only. “We all agreed that ‘buy local’ would be used to mean ‘buy from a local independent.’”

Nevertheless, both noted that the means to an end will be one in the same. “Buying stuff is personal. It can get emotional when you are telling people where to spend their money,” said Renner. “We just want to give people information and make it easy for them to invest in our community.” •



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