When development isn’t making your community better, it’s up to citizens to organize to change the status quo. That’s what happened in 2005 when redevelopment efforts on Grand Avenue in St Paul, Minnesota threatened to erode the character – and opportunity for local entrepreneurs – on this strip of eclectic, unique businesses.
A small, feisty group of independent business owners, students and citizens put their minds together to discuss how to change concerning trends. The resulting organization — Metro Independent Business Alliance — recently celebrated a decade of laudable accomplishments after being one of the first Alliances to launch in a large metro area.
MetroIBA director Mary Hamel reflected on their early work, “the City seemed infatuated by chain stores, and the independent businesses and residents felt their voices were not being heard at City Hall. Together they found that they could make more of an impact and were successful at persuading the local officials to see how important their businesses were to the charm and character of the city.”
MetroIBA has excelled in a number of areas, but perhaps most notably in their political advocacy on behalf of the Twin Cities’ independent businesses. Yes, they’ve gained the ear of City Hall in both St. Paul and Minneapolis, but operating in the seat of state government presented the opportunity to engage with the legislature and state officials, and even with their Members of Congress. And MetroIBA has seized it.
“Our group is quite politically active. We truly believe that shopping local is not enough,” says Hamel. “We need policies at the city, county, state and federal level in order to even the playing field for our businesses.” Key to addressing issues at multiple government levels is MetroIBA’s public policy committee, which watchdogs government actions affecting small businesses in the seven-county Metro area and is chaired by a citizen volunteer, Linda Winsor.
Among recent victories include persuading local government to scrap proposed subsidies for a planned Amazon.com Inc. distribution center. MetroIBA also was also instrumental in urging the Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport Commission to give preference to truly local entrepreneurs at their newly-remodeled terminal. They’ve also figured prominently in advancing support for sales tax fairness in Minnesota.
Their advocacy also ensures indie business perspectives are well-represented in the community and media. But being a more politically-focused group has its challenges. “Occasionally legislation comes up that members — even board members — disagree on. It is difficult to know how to proceed when a majority, but not all, are on the same page regarding a public policy, such as minimum wage,” said Hamel.
MetroIBA’s political activity also has helped gain them notice and build their membership – a challenging task in a metro area of nearly 3.5 million people and encompassing seven counties. New initiatives should contribute to that success. MetroIBA published their first print directory last year – it was a project that drew skepticism from their board initially. But having learned of the positive impact and gaining advice from fellow IBAs who had created one, they forged ahead. They’ve distributed 25,000 copies of the inaugural effort and they are pleased with how it’s been received.
MetroIBA also will sponsor their first annual TC Indie Business Awards in May 2016 — an activity they’re adapting from other Independent Business Alliances Alliances like Oakland, CA and Portland, ME. “A prestigious panel of five judges will select the best of the best nominated businesses. We view the Awards as an opportunity to cast a wider net beyond member businesses, attracting new prospects and a more diverse array of businesses,” conveys Hamel. The inaugural Awards should be primed for success, buoyed by a recent feature in the Star-Tribune, Minnesota’s largest paper. The article was prompted by MetroIBA’s press release on the results from the 2015 Survey of Independent Businesses conducted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
As for being tough in the face of adversity, MetroIBA is a group that came close to closing up shop during an ebb in its development. After just a couple of years in operation, their board had lost members, and those that remained were stressed out under the pressure of owning businesses and trying to get a fledgling group growing in a large metropolitan area. But determination won the day. MetroIBA fought its way back to become a powerful local advocate and went on to host the American Independent Business Alliance’s national conference in 2014. MetroIBA and it’s “Buy Local Twin Cities” brand continues to build membership and influence to benefit independent businesses throughout the area.
Related story: Metro IBA: The Twin Cities Advocate for Indie BusinessPrint This Post