Just across the bay from the bustling city of San Francisco lies Berkeley, California. This laid-back home of the University California is known for its great restaurants, bookstores, love of bikes, social advocacy, and diverse communities. One of them, West Berkeley, has a distinct flavor all its own. This reclaimed industrial district is home to West Berkeley Design Loop, an advocate for the independent home improvers, architects, and designers who live and work to keep Berkeley utterly unique.
While Berkeley itself is mostly free of chains, many gravitated to West Berkeley — including home improvement giants. As these stores moved in Lawrence Grown, now the Design Loops Executive Director, was inspired to take action as he watched his community independent businesses struggling. So in 2008, after looking back on his experience with multiple leadership groups, boards, and fundraising committees, he decided to take action and focus on the importance of community organizing as a way to compete with West Berkeley’s big box home improvement stores and their large advertising budgets.
He wasn’t the only one noticing the need to unite West Berkeley’s local merchants, designers, consultants, and builders. Ecohome Improvement and Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development (OED) joined the conversation with great interest and, with some welcomed OED funding, Grown was able to hire a branding firm to solidify the West Berkeley Design Loop identity.
The Design Loop fits perfectly in their unique community because they are one of the few industry-specific associations of independent merchants. This means they can target their messaging to members of the public interested in design, construction, and home improvement while functioning mostly on volunteers and support from their member organization.
They also are changing the concept of competition by building a spirit of “co-opetition.” Grown says, “As an owner of a lighting showroom, I might feel threatened by the opening of another lighting store in my neighborhood. But in the Design Loop I know that the more we can draw clients and customers to West Berkeley from around the Bay Area, the better it will be for all of us in the long run.”
To increase their presence in the community the Design Loop hosted their first event in July of 2013 called “Get In The Loop!” As first community introductions go, this one was well organized, publicized, and attended. Their debut to West Berkeley included many popular home improvement DIY workshops and a variety of sweepstakes.
Since that event, they have developed a frequent series of evening “mixers” to allow members of the design community to get to know each other, build relationships, and access the Design Loop referral network. The mixers last just over an hour and are hosted by a rotation of their members. Midway through the event everyone introduces themselves and gives an elevator pitch about their company. Then the host has the floor for 5-10 minutes to describe what they uniquely offer. This has included slideshows, expert talks, and tours. These mixers have also been effective ways to attract new members.
When it comes to providing community resources, the Design Loop knows their market. Close to their formation, they began producing a brochure including a printed map showcasing what they offer. The public reacted positively to the brochure, often remarking on what a great idea it is to gather related resources in a convenient and easy-to-use way. The map features a set of icons describing the offerings of each business to help clients find what they are looking for.
The Design Loop has a reach outside of their community as well. Shortly after making a name for themselves, they received mentions in Independent We Stand and Berekeleyside, and Grown was asked to speak to the San Carlos Department of Economic Development – a neighboring city who is hoping to develop a home improvement district in their city using the West Berkeley Design Loop model. They are also an active participant in community events such as Berkeley’s Sunday Streets and the Solano Stroll.
Grown acknowledges the benefits of being stronger together and feels lucky to have a good resource in their local sister organization, Buy Local Berkeley. Though the Design Loop was started as a merchants association, it has grown to include local professional design and building industries. They now have many architects, contractors, and designers as business and board members.
So what does the future hold? Grown sees even more Design Loop Member support, saying, “One of my long-term goals is to develop business strategies for local entrepreneurs. If we can help our business owners learn best practices for marketing and management, then we can be a more effective organization.”