American Independent Business Alliance

Portland Buy Local Keeps the Soul in One of New England’s Great Cities

Portland Buy Local Keeps the Soul in One of New England’s Great Cities

Like many pro-local business coalitions, the Portland Independent Business and Community Alliance, aka Portland Buy Local, was started by a small group of business owners in Portland with a goal of ensuring the character of the city would not be destroyed by an influx of national chain businesses.

Mary Allen Lindemann, owner of Coffee by Design, was oPortland_totene of them. “While some thought stores like Anthropologie would draw more people downtown, I saw it as the beginning of something frightening.”  That “something” is the lease rates national chains can absorb that locals cannot, which often forces local entrepreneurs from unique, historic downtowns they helped create or revitalize.  At stake was the very soul and identity of Portland.

Lindemann had operated downtown long enough to see it progress from a dismal 40% vacancy rate in the 1990s to now having a waiting list for space. “It’s all local businesses doing it. Independently-owned businesses brought our downtown back. Young people were leaving, but people are coming back (I did).  Look at [Portland] now — just try to find business space or housing. These, too, are problems, but because we now have a sustainable economy,” related Lindemann.

So she started researching buy local campaigns. Her search led her to Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, who had conducted one of the first studies documenting the local economic multiplier effect — this one on the Maine coast.  As Lindemann discovered, Mitchell lived in Portland, and the two met and connected with a few other business owners with interest, too. But Mitchell was consumed with writing Big Box Swindle, so involving her would need to wait 6 months.

During that six months, a number of downtown businesses closed. That next meeting of independent businesses was standing-room only. They commissioned a logo and officially launched the Portland Independent Business and Community Alliance with an Independents Week campaign and “Portland Buy Local” campaign tag.

A decade later, Portland Buy Local is one of the most visible pro-local groups anywhere. Over the years they’ve created t-shirts, tote bags and posters using the work of local artists that have become collectors’ items. They also put themselves into regular contact with the public through events like a Downtown Worker Appreciation Day for which they set up a station and serve coffee and treats to folks on their way to work downtown (Portland has a particularly large downtown commercial area) and an annual birthday celebration for PBL at which cake is served to passersby.

heartPBL also is popular – they’ve routinely won awards for their work, including many local “best-ofs.” But they also award others.  As one of the first pro-local groups to single out the best of the best local independent businesses, says Program Manager Jenn Thompson, “for the past eight years we have been putting on an event to give awards to local businesses that best represent what Portland means. The event has grown in popularity each year, and apart from being a significant fundraising event, it helps spread the word about Portland’s many great businesses.”

Portland Buy Local also creates online gift guides for holidays throughout the year, such as their Father’s Day and Mother’s Day shopping guides, and spotlights different business sectors each month. They also conduct a continuing monthly “shift your spending” campaign highlighting the many different business sectors their members comprise.

PBL has started leveraging their visibility and popularity to move into the advocacy arena in a more focused way, adding their voice to issues impacting independent businesses such as lease rates, historic preservation, and building ownership. A participatory public forum to develop plans to halt the displacement of local businesses is now in planning. Portland also has a growing ethnic community, and PBL is building relationships to help them know they are part of the local movement.

PBL also learned they have a strong impact outside of Portland – Russia, in fact! Mary Allen Lindemann said, “I have a sister who does grassroots organizing on democracy there, and small business is a big topic, so she often uses my business as an example. A community in her area was interested in learning more about ‘buy local’ and Portland Buy Local, got started, and is doing well.” So PBL’s work helped inspire two communities in Eastern Russia to organize – Khabarovsk and Vladivostok.  “You just don’t know the ripple effect of what you’re doing,” observes Lindemann.*

The “ripples” are spreading locally, too, and impacting the future.  One day a group of very small school children was walking by Lindemann’s store with their teacher and noticed PBL’s decal in her window.  The teacher asked them what it meant, and the kids responded, “Buy local!”  Lindemann thought, “Yesss!”

*AMIBA occasionally receives inquiries from various nations outside of North America, which are included on this new map.  We are always ready to help make connections for people interested in instigating action in their home.

Update: in June, 2016, Portland IBCA published bullet-point highlights of their work through the years — something every local coalition should consider.

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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