A Cryptic Beginning, A Decade of Success: Louisville Independent Business Alliance

A Cryptic Beginning, A Decade of Success: Louisville Independent Business Alliance

klw_forehead_temp_tattooIn August of 2003 Louisville’s largest independent bookstore announced it would be bought by the Borders chain. Hawley Cooke had just celebrated 25 years of being in business in Louisville. It was a local institution and by all appearances “everyone’s favorite bookstore.”

But appearances can be deceiving. Two chain bookstores, Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million, had opened stores in Louisville and were cutting into Hawley Cooke’s market share in what proved to be a slow and painful death. The purchase of Hawley Cooke by Borders sent a shiver through the independent business community and residents alike – it was kind of a wake-up call for both business owners and shoppers that their behavior matters.

A year later, Ear X-tacy owner John Timmons went to Austin and was captivated by the Keep Austin Weird campaign, driven by the Austin Independent Business Alliance. After meeting with the founders he returned to Louisville, with their blessing to bring the same message to Louisville.

Without any fanfare, he put up several billboards in 2005 that said nothing more than “Keep Louisville Weird.” Bumper stickers and t-shirts soon followed. Despite the deliberate lack of narrative or origin, the message spread and became understood. People started talking more about supporting unique independent businesses to keep the weird (at least by Kentucky standards) in Louisville.

The initial “keep Louisville weird” billboard and the storm of interest around it were a great spark for organizing the Louisville Independent Business Alliance (LIBA) and all that it would accomplish. While the organization took another three years to hit its stride, the publicity and community support garnered from that first push carried LIBA through to become a stable, long-term force for “Buy Local” education.

keep-louisville-weird-buildingKeep Louisville Weird held its first Brewfest in 2009, which was also a major milestone organizationally. LIBA’s staff hoped for 500 people to attend. They drew 1,500 and ran the taps dry. The event netted close to $10,000, providing the first large lump sum of revenue for the young organization.

Brewfest became a blueprint for several other Independent Business Alliances (such as Shop Local Raleigh’s Brewgaloo) to raise funds while helping local brewers, distillers, restaurants and other food vendors dramatically grow their brand awareness. (AMIBA affiliates have access to documentation and sample budgets from Brewfest, Brewgaloo and other events to help them learn from their peers and run more profitable events.)*

Getting to 500 business members in 2013 gave LIBA’s leadership great confidence and a feeling of being established. “It had been a goal since the beginning and took a lot longer to achieve than was originally (naively) set out, but it felt wonderful to achieve it,” said Executive Director, Jennifer Rubenstein (Rubenstein also serves on the board of the American Independent Business Alliance).

Organizationally, LIBA faced a budget crunch in 2014. Taking on a much-needed office space added a lot to monthly expenses. By banding together as a board they addressed it, with each board member taking on a financial goal to be reached by the method of their choosing (recruiting new members/sponsors/advertising, donating as a business or person to LIBA, etc.). Almost all of them achieved it.

LIBA strives to define member criteria in a way to make the definition of local and independent clear to the public, while also allowing for support from businesses that don’t meet the qualifications but support the mission. This remains a challenge as LIBA’s clout grows and attracts more attention.

Rubenstein says LIBA especially looks to their “mentor” organizations to help with ideas for member retention. “Our growth is meaningless if our members don’t want to stay.” One idea LIBA soon plans to implement is adding a brief “maximize your membership” session before each networking meeting. “Other IBAs are also extremely helpful with ideas for materials and campaigns. The AMIBA network is an incredible way to get inspiration and ideas for us to use here.”

Indie businesses keep community character alive

Indie businesses keep community character alive

The community’s support and readiness to embrace the Localization Movement is evidenced in LIBA’s growth: from 60 business members in 2008 to over 700 as they celebrate their 10th anniversay in 2015. Their annual Buy Local Fair has grown from 200 participants in 2008 to over 8000 in 2014.

As one of the largest Independent Business Alliances in the country, the Louisville IBA has made its mark on the community. Most everyone has heard the “keep Louisville weird” slogan — and many seek to emulate it, from the coffee shop that says “keep Louisville wired” to local musicians that say “keep Louisville symphonic.”

That mark also is evident in partnership.  In 2014, the City of Louisville engaged LIBA to develop events and programs to facilitate new local independent businesses in South Louisville, a lower-income area that has long sought more neighborhood options for dining, shopping and services. When local government looks to your local Alliance to lead on economic development initiatives, you know you’ve started changing paradigms!

Learn more about Independent Business Alliances or see who’s interested in launching a new IBA or “buy local” initiative in your community.

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