Sunday, October 14, 2007

What's the definition of local?

This is the second of four parts in a series on Willits, California, one the first communities in the United States to respond to peak oil.

Peak oil activists in Willits, California have convinced city officials, the chamber of commerce, and even the Rotary Club that focusing on locally owned and operated businesses is an important step in preparing for the onset of world peak oil production. At first this seemed simple. The community would be encouraged to patronize businesses owned and operated by people who live in and around Willits or, more specifically, the Willits zip code.

But what exactly is a local business? The local paper, The Willits News, has been highly supportive of the peak oil activists, often providing front-page coverage of their events and publishing letters to the editor and guest editorials on their activities and concerns. But the newspaper is owned by a large media chain that also owns 56 other newspapers across the country. So where exactly does the newspaper fit?

Hardware stores are usually locally owned, but often affiliated with national organizations. Ace Hardware Corp. and Do It Best Corp. are both cooperatives owned by their retailer members. Are these local retailers truly local? If so, what about other chain stores? While some chain stores are owned by large corporations, many others are franchises, often owned and run by people in the community. A franchise such as Subway or McDonald's would fall into this category.

Then, of course, there is the issue of sourcing one's products locally. True localization would mean getting whatever one is selling from producers nearby. Clearly, Willits would grind to a halt if it had to source all of its needs locally. But some restaurants, a local health food store and a supermarket have all made strides by sourcing some of their food locally. Craft items are sometimes also available nearby. But the vast majority of items sold in Willits are not made in or around Willits and won't be anytime soon.

The manager of the supermarket mentioned above began to stock local produce at the urging of area activists. His store, however, is part of a small chain which owns about 70 stores in California and Oregon. Should this supermarket be awarded "local" status?

It is a symptom of our globalized world that the term "local business" should become so confused. Organizers of what has come to be known as the "Local First" campaign in Willits certainly didn't want to exclude anyone who supports the idea of sourcing goods and services locally. But allowing everyone into the program who wanted in would have defeated the whole purpose of the campaign.

In the end the organizers decided that a hardware store owner who is a long-time resident and contributor to the community should be included as a local business and thus eligible for the "I Shop Local" stickers, associated window decal and other promotional materials. While they were very pleased with the efforts of the supermarket, it clearly wasn't a locally owned business. The local newspaper was a big supporter too, but also clearly not locally owned. So a new designation was created called "Community Business Partner." Any business that declared it was in support of local sourcing of goods and services could be part of the "Local First" program under this designation. But such businesses wouldn't be eligible for the stickers or window decals of the "Local First" campaign.

Franchises could become community business partners, too, if they wished. But the message from the city increasingly is, "No more, please." According to Willits' city planner, the city is working on an ordinance which essentially would prohibit big box stores through retail size restrictions. The ordinance would also prohibit most new franchises by requiring that a new business be at least 50 percent owned by someone in Willits and not have more than perhaps four other substantially similar locations. (The exact details are still being worked out.) Both types of restrictions have been upheld in California courts.

The irony of this is that a significant portion of the city government's revenue comes from sales taxes generated by franchises and service station chains located in Willits. Since the city is on the major north-south route in northern California, Highway 101, a constant stream of cars, trucks and RVs passes through each day. Many of them stop to refuel, of course. And, the drivers and occupants also refuel by eating fast food from the many chains that dot the highway on the city's southern end.

But the people of Willits are trying to think ahead. Someday, perhaps sooner rather than later, the heavy traffic which now clogs the highway bisecting their town may dwindle to a trickle as rising fuel prices make long-distance trucking and automobile travel less and less practical. At that point the residents of Willits believe that they will need to rely much more on what they can produce and sell locally and much less on what will remain of the global economy.


George Seldes said...

Why not use the obvious aspect of "local ownership" to decide -- that is, companies where the owner resides in the locality are local, regardless of ties to other places; companies where the owners are investor- stockholders are not local are not local companies, period.

So the hardware stores are local; the grocery is not, unless the chain is privately held and the owners live locally. (It's possible for a chain to be local in one place and not in others.) The newspaper is not local to anyplace. Once ownership shifts to a stock market, concerns for local places goes out the window.

Curtis Fromke said...

Jim Merkel's book Radical Simplicity deals with these issues.
New Society Publishers, 2003. Also

michael foley said...

This isn't just about peak oil and the inevitable rise in cost of "imported items." There is evidence -- a bit of it, because not much research has been done -- that locally owned means greater involvement in the community -- more charitable donations, more community service, more political involvement. Franchise owners do more than managers of non-locally owned businesses, but less than local owners.

There's also the issue of where the wealth goes. Businesses aren't just good for generating jobs, as the economists always seem to suggest; they also generate wealth. Owners collect the wealth, and the question is where they spend it and where they keep it. Local owners are more likely to spend it locally and, perhaps more important, more likely to bank it locally.

...more likely, of course, means there are lots of exceptions to the pattern, hence the need for something like Willits' Community Business Partners.