Unique Eugene: Evolving for Greater Effectiveness

Unique Eugene: Evolving for Greater Effectiveness

EugeneEugene is home to an eclectic mix of independent businesses that help make the city enveloping Oregon’s Willamette River a distinctive and memorable destination. But with increasing competition from chains, online giants, and other remote businesses, Eugene merchants realized the necessity of collaborating to preserve their livelihoods and Eugene’s independent character. In 1999 a collection of retailers, spearheaded by Paul Nicholson, owner of Paul’s Bicycle Way of Life, formed Unique Eugene to help local, independent businesses share ideas, collaborate and better promote themselves as a cohesive unit. The formative concept was simple: good things will happen if people who own local businesses get together and work on common goals.

Unique Eugene is now in a transitional phase as it shifts from a small merchants association to the  larger, more broadly inclusive Eugene Independent Businesses Alliance (EIBA). Despite the formal name change, EIBA will retain the Unique Eugene brand for community outreach. Unique Eugene leaders anticipate that building a more diverse business membership will help spread the pro-local business message more broadly throughout the community and expand funding opportunities.

unique-eugene-gift-certificatesDespite the transition, some aspects of Unique Eugene will continue to thrive, including the community giving program that supports local schools and nonprofits. Unique Eugene gift certificates, redeemable at any member business, exemplify the organization’s focus on strengthening partnerships and community philanthropy. Unique Eugene sells the gift certificates at a reduced rate (and sometimes donates them) to schools and nonprofits. Recipients sell the gift certificates at face value and retain the profit for their organization or use them in other ways to generate support, such as in silent auctions or as door prizes. As one example, Unique Eugene donated $1,000 worth of gift certificates to the local transportation system’s “drive less challenge” to be used as a grand prize. Unique Eugene also supports local education through its Lane Community College scholarship. Each year for five years the organization donated $2,000 to support students studying sustainability and business.

The gift certificate program characterizes the organization’s two-pronged approach of encouraging residents to buy local and showing thanks to a city that keeps local businesses thriving. Dwight Collins, from Newman’s Fish Company, expressed his excitement about Unique Eugene’s community involvement, saying, “Members of Unique Eugene realize how important it is to help the community continue to grow in a healthy way. The more we can pool our resources together, the more we can influence the greater community.”

Unique Eugene will continue to succeed by keeping the community aware of why buying locally matters and encouraging people to think critically about where their dollars are spent. They produced several TV and print ads to convey their message, which also is reinforced in the group’s community giving programs. Unique Eugene also spread their message by participating in the Eugene Celebration parade, winning awards more than two years in a row for best community group. The parade personified Eugene’s quirky spirit, and Unique Eugene members fit right in, dancing behind the band in fish and vegetable costumes that represented their own businesses.

As the group engineers their future, Unique Eugene members have drawn enormous inspiration from fellow AMIBA affiliates and the large library of affiliates’ program templates through AMIBA. Collins cited materials that assist with growing membership, obtaining non-profit status and creating a paid position within the organization as helpful in establishing EIBA’s new organizational structure. (All materials are available to AMIBA affiliates in Member Resources.)

Eugene is quirky and unique, something Unique Eugene will continue to value as it evolves into a more formal Independent Business Alliance. Whereas in the past the organization focused more on promoting individual member businesses, leaders see this transition as a more holistic approach to generating community support and passion for the buy local campaign. Says Collins, “Now we don’t need to spend so much time helping each person advertise; [instead we] need to get the buy local message out. That’s a big transition that we’re going through.” 

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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