Around Bemidji lately (and I am sure other areas) there is a lot of “water-cooler” talk regarding supporting local businesses. The “buy local” theme is nothing new…every chamber of commerce has used the campaign. With difficult economic times around us, the topic is getting more attention than ever. And as always there are two sides to every story.
Side one involves an argument that we should support local “Bemidji” businesses with our purchases…whether you are a government entity, a non-profit organization, a business or simply an individual. This theory is based upon the idea that buying local keeps local people working, with the money staying in the local economy, and therefore “multiplying”. The local business pays local employees, purchases goods and services from local vendors which in turn employ local people, who spend their paychecks in local establishments and so on and so on. It sure sounds good…perfect for a civic marketing campaign.
Side two: Buying local is becoming more difficult these days and clear cut distinctions and arguments are harder to figure out. Many local businesses obtaining bids for projects or for services are finding, with difficult economic times, more out of town companies are attempting to get local business. I have heard recently this comment from several area people who are surprised to receive proposals from companies in St. Cloud, Fargo, Duluth and even from the Twin Cities. Companies looking to sell are expanding their territories farther than ever. Someone recently told me there are now over 8 food service vending companies calling on Bemidji area restaurants. Same for trucking services. And you throw in the fact that in some cases…these companies are bidding jobs at costs just to keep their employees working, it makes buying local even more of a challenge. If you are a non-profit or a business owner, or even an individual, struggling to keep yourself and your company going, at what point do you say “I’d like to give my business to local company xyz, but there is no way I can afford to.”
Another question comes into play here. What constitutes a “local company”? Many of these BUY LOCAL campaign talk down regarding national retail chains (such as Walmart, Target and others) yet these stores employ hundreds of LOCAL people generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in local payroll dollars and in most cases being good corporate citizens and contributing back to the community in support of non-profits. Is it a civic “sin” that a consulting firm who has an office in Bemidji but is not headquartered here gets awarded a city contract? Or that Kraus Anderson (with a presence here in Bemidji) gets awarded the event center contract but is criticized that not all the subcontractors are local? Bids for this project came in $12 million dollars under budget. At what price are we willing to stay local?
The bottom line is this. Yes, I agree we should support local businesses as much as reasonably possible. Local businesses need to realize they are competing in a new competitive global environment and that they need good products at sharp prices. Non-profits need to realize that many local businesses are active in their community and support the United Way and other organizations that indirectly support them. We all need to realize that the word LOCAL is not all that clearly defined anymore and is not a reason to automatically sign on the dotted line. The key word is REASONABLE. If your company or non-profit is buying balloons on the internet….maybe it would be prudent to check out your locally owned party store down the street. Or heaven forbid …maybe even a national chain store. At least some of that money is staying here.