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Whither retail Part 2 – the 3/50 Project

The 3/50 Project is giving us all a simple recipe for preserving and promoting commercial activity in our communities: pick 3 independently owned local businesses that you would miss if they disappeared, and spend $50 each month at those businesses ($50 divided among all three). The basic idea is to commit a total of $50 each month to locally owned independent businesses.

The promoters point out that the money spent in independent local businesses returns more money to the community — in taxes, payroll, and other expenditures — than the money spent in big-box stores and franchises. (And the return to the community is infinitely greater than when we spend our money in out-0f-town businesses or online.) Ideally, it also means that local retail areas thrive because they contain one-of-a-kind independent businesses that  customers seek out. (This is particularly important for older shopping areas — like Jackson Square and Grove Center. )

All this is consistent with the concepts of a sustainable local economy and a sustainable environment — for example, the Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board‘s draft climate action plan calls for “increasing the local velocity of money” (basically, keeping more money in the local economy and moving it around faster) as one strategy for making Oak Ridge more self-sufficient — and thus more sustainable. With the Jackson Square and Grove Center merchants, Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce, and several other local businesses signed on as supporters of the 3/50 Project, it appears that different elements in the community are all together on this.

Thinking about the 3/50 concept, I quickly realized that some independent local businesses that are important to me are unlikely to get my business every month. For example, I’m wearing shoes that came from Edwards Shoe Store and I drive a car that was last serviced at Chuck’s CarCare Center, and even though I value these two businesses, I’m unlikely to spend money with them every single month. On the other hand, in any given month I’m likely to spend $50 or more divided between several independent local eateries (places like Homeland Food, the Magnolia Tree Restaurant, Mediterranean Delight, the Flatwater Grill, and the various Mexican restaurants). Most people are likely to have different “threes” in different months — and spend more than $50 in some months.

I’ve also pondered a bit regarding some of the 3/50 Project’s criteria  — for example, the idea that locally-owned franchise businesses don’t qualify because they have advantages, like preferred vendor lists, specially negotiated vendor pricing,  and a regionally/nationally recognized brand name, that true independent businesses lack. Franchises are less in need of customer support than truly independent businesses. However, if my goal as a city leader is to maintain a vital retail sector and keep money in town, I have to care about the success of locally owned franchises —  partly because they are more likely to succeed (and thus provide a stronger retail sector).

For me, the key idea of the 3/50 Project is that we consumers need to be conscious of where the money we spend is going to end up — and try to make spending decisions that keep more of that money in the local economy. I like having one simple message that tells us to do all that.

I hope that our local independent business owners will return the favor by paying attention to customer needs and wants (different operating hours to better serve two-earner households? offering special ordering to better meet customer needs?) — so we will have more and more reasons to spend our money with them.

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