There’s no question that the “buy local” movement has made great strides within the last decade, fostering a sense of corporate responsibility among well-known grocery chains, a spark of community-based ‘Choose Local’ campaigns, and a reinvention of the manner in which we use local resources.

lab (300x200)However, from the perspective of a millennial operating on a tight budget, buying local in my hometown of Ann Arbor doesn’t come cheap. It can mean shelling out more than $5 for every cup of coffee at Lab or at least $15 for every Zingerman’s experience. Which begs the question – is it actually worth it?

In a speech recently given as part of Zingerman’s ZingTrain speaker series, economist and author Michael Shuman argued affirmatively, discussing the several untold economic benefits of supporting community-based businesses.

Research has shown that regions with the highest concentration of local businesses also have higher per capita job growth and more profound income growth. According to Shuman, every time a consumer spends a dollar locally, 2 to 4 times more jobs, income, and taxes go back into the community than if that same dollar had been spent at a non-local business.

In many Michigan communities, these benefits are already transforming the ecosystem in which locally piloted enterprises operate and grow.

Who Creates Local Prosperity?

Despite overwhelming evidence in favor of community-based commerce as a means towards regional prosperity, we still see many examples of economic developers offering grants and tax incentives to encourage non-local businesses to take up residence in their areas. The argument for these actions is convincing at the surface level: in many cases, developers assume that these companies, which boast a record of success, will bring employment opportunities, investment, and talent to the places in which they locate.

However, according to Shuman this “mutually beneficial” arrangement actually does much more for the non-local business than for the locality it’s purporting to help. In many cases, this spectrum of incentives essentially allows non-local enterprises to transplant their current operation into a newer, cheaper place. Rarely does this equate to new and abundant employment opportunities for local residents; rather, those already working for the company tend to relocate right along with it.

This outside business then begins competing with smaller, community-based establishments. However, they do so at an advantage, operating with grants and tax breaks not offered to their smaller, locally-owned counterparts.

In shorter and blunter terms, economic developers have adopted a harmful practice of attracting and then providing non-local enterprises with the resources necessary to run their local equivalents into the ground. Considering the many benefits that local businesses provide to the community, this practice seems at best counterintuitive and at worst harmful to local economies.

The Alternative

michael shuman (163x244)Michael Shuman insists that there is a better way to create an innovative ecosystem for local prosperity. Even more compelling: economic developers are not the solution. In fact, they perpetuate a problem.

Instead, Shuman suggests that local entrepreneurs can build this environment themselves. He calls these local business owners ‘pollinators.’ Bees pollinate for the sake of their own survival, yet without realizing it their activity drives the growth and reproduction of other species. Similarly, driven individuals (while working towards their own success and profitability) can foster a collaborative ecosystem in which other growing organizations have the potential to succeed. Successful business owners identify areas of potential growth, mentor new entrepreneurs, work in symbiosis with other enterprises offering a complimentary service, make goods more widely available, and help reinvest in local commerce.

The Bottom Line

Shuman suggests that it’s time for economic developers to take a step back and question whether their efforts are doing more harm than good. Have continual agreements with non-local businesses actually paid off in the communities they intended to help? Or are these grants and tax incentives creating (as Shuman suggests) a welfare system for corporations incapable of standing on their own two feet?

One thing seems certain: rather than focus their attention on attracting outside firms, local and state governments would do well to shift focus instead to supporting local entrepreneurs, whose ideas and resources would truly give back to the community.

cantoros (300x199)It’s refreshing to understand that an economic argument for supporting community enterprise exists. And to answer my earlier question – yes, despite our constricted budgets, buying local is worth it. In condensed terms, choosing local today can create a job for you (or your neighbor, or your sibling, or your child) tomorrow. When we support our community-based businesses, we see direct material benefits.

We also, however, see immaterial benefits to buying local. It makes us happier and healthier, and it also helps us feel connected to and involved in the communities we call home. In many Michigan areas, local businesses are community anchors. Think Cops and Donuts in Clare, Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theater, Cantoro’s of Plymouth, and (of course) Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor. These places are thriving businesses, but they’re also destinations for visitors. Owners feel connected to the people that walk through their doors, and pride for the communities they serve.

Juxtapose this against a Wal-Mart in Oriental, North Carolina. Bloomberg writes:

“The Town’n Country grocery in Oriental, North Carolina, a local fixture for 44 years, closed its doors in October after a Wal-Mart store opened for business. Now, three months later — and less than two years after Wal-Mart arrived — the retail giant is pulling up stakes, leaving the community with no grocery store and no pharmacy.”

wal-mart (300x199)This is a tragedy, and it’s also what happens when we fail to appreciate and support the local businesses that support us.

Take a moment and think about the things that are special about your town, the places that set it apart from anywhere else in the state or nation. In Garden City, I grew up eating Italian food from Amantea’s and Villa Bakery, I spent hours and hours of time learning ballet at Robert Lee Dance Studio, and almost every formal dress for high school dances was acquired after trying on a million options at Eva’s Bridal. Small businesses, whether or not we realize it, are the fabric of our lives. They’re the places in which we work, socialize, and make memories.

So next time you’re questioning whether or not to choose local, keep in mind how much those local businesses are doing for your community, and maybe take pride in spending a extra few dollars. Not only because that money comes back to your city (2 to 4 times!), but because Michigan’s small businesses make this state a wonderful place in which to live, and we’re lucky to have them here.

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While attending the League’s Capital Conference last month, I had the pleasure of sharing breakfast with local officials from Hazel Park, all of whom took a moment to update me on the new and exciting things happening this year in their city. Hazel Park certainly seems to have been the center of encouraging progress over the last year. New restaurant ventures and neighborhood revitalization efforts have drawn attention to the area, and the Congress of New Urbanism has even chosen the city for a charrette program intended to reimagine city buildings, public spaces, streets, and sidewalks.

hazel-park-mabel-gray-exterior-main-300x200By all accounts, I’m encouraged by what I see unfolding in Hazel Park. Yet, one singular aspect of my conversation with the city’s local officials stood out among the intriguing developments mentioned above. Hazel Park boasts a politically and ideologically diverse group of local officials, yet Councilman Mike Webb explained emphatically that every individual is dedicated to setting aside their personal convictions in order to make decisions that truly benefit Hazel Park.

In 2016, the concept of compromise should not be revolutionary. In the midst of a discussion about award-winning chefs, art fairs, and breweries popping up in the community, my main take-away should not have been shock that such a politically disparate group of officials work with each other for the good of a community. In modern America, this cooperation should be expected of local, state, and national leaders.

But it isn’t. In fact, my shock at Hazel Park’s symbiotic arrangement made it apparent to me that we’ve grown to expect the opposite. In short, this polarization in government is the main reason why a significant (and growing) portion of my generation is decidedly skeptical of politics at all levels, and only one of many reasons why young people (ages 18-35) make up only 6 percent of board and commission members in metro Detroit.

What do Millennials Think of Local Government?

Last year, our friends at the Florida League of Cities conducted a study on my generation and our views of government generally, but local government specifically. This snippet sums up their findings well:

[Millennials] do not like the bickering or fighting they see in congress, and the whole process generally annoys them. They shied away from the partisanship of government and simply want things to work.

When summarizing what it is that millennials want and expect from their local governments, the study found that they “want the fundamental elements of government to work. They enjoy local parks, yearn for better mass transit, and generally feel safe in their homes.” Young people want their local governments to progress towards the best possible way of life with the least possible amount of interference, and they want officials to elevate local standards of living above personal political ideology.

Asking municipal officials to display a higher level of responsibility and selflessness than is expected of government on a state or national level seems like a tall order, and indeed it is. But Hazel Park has managed it, and the results are startling. A lot of good things are happening there, and they’re happening because, when necessary, councilmembers and other officials are willing to remind each other to get down off their soap box and get things done.

By any standards, Hazel Park’s revitalization is incredible – but it’s made even more incredible considering the array of obstacles they’ve had to overcome to make this progress happen. They’ve chosen not to let personal political agendas be one of those obstacles, and I would imagine that members of my generation would be encouraged by hearing this.

Why Does Local Government Need Millennials?

Time is moving forward and eventually those currently serving their communities and states in an official capacity will have to retire. If millennials aren’t adequately prepared to step into their complicated roles and take responsibility for their communities, what will happen?

I can imagine that most municipal leaders are not exactly eager for “the selfie generation” to step into positions of influence and take on day-to-day municipal challenges. However, millennials getting involved in local government is better than the alternative – a huge generational void in leadership that leaves cities drastically under-staffed and mismanaged. Millennials bring a high sense of ethics, a thorough understanding of burgeoning technology, an innovative spirit, and an eagerness to have a positive social impact in the workplace – all things from which Michigan’s many communities could only stand to benefit.

Despite these strong attributes, however, the task becomes unnecessarily complicated without the mentorship of today’s leaders. Those currently serving possess a thorough working knowledge of a community’s budget history, municipal strengths and weaknesses, and what a community will need to thrive in the future. It is integral that this knowledge be passed on to those to whom the torch will fall within the next decade. In order for this to happen, however, local officials must make a concentrated effort to celebrate what’s going right in their areas, to better communicate that local politics aren’t necessarily a microcosm of Washingtonian egotism, and to resuscitate millennial interest in government.

I wrote this blog because I don’t think that millennials hear about leaders like those in Hazel Park very often. The polarized, even vindictive nature of Washington-based politics tends to drown out the very good things that are happening locally, and it jades our views towards the political system as a whole.

In short, it’s a messaging problem.

One of our many city managers in Michigan, in a survey for MLGMA’s rebranding initiative, said this about his local involvement: “I get a real charge from helping people. Sometimes it’s the littlest things we can do to the biggest things. From a falling tree to saving a lost kid… It’s about making lives better.” This idea resonates with my generation, so why don’t we hear it more often? Leaders like those in Hazel Park owe it to themselves to be more vocal about their love for their community, for compromise, and for progress, because it might just change a millennial’s mind.

Ann Arbor is home to the University of Michigan, frequently deemed one of the best universities in the world, so you might safely assume it’s a city full of geeks.

Geek culture, however, transcends the basic campus community of students and faculty. Instead, Ann Arbor’s geek culture encompasses a thriving, grassroots tech community, full of technologists, entrepreneurs, and startup pioneers who are redefining the way that Michigan does business. TechBrewery, a co-working space that much of the local tech crowd calls home, aims to do just that: provide a cooperative, non-traditional environment in which entrepreneurs can get the ball rolling.

“It takes a community to raise and support a tech economy,” said Ann Arbor-based entrepreneur and TechBrewery founder Dug Song. “Create enough companies and jobs will be there.”IMG_6833 (2) (300x200)

Song partnered with Northern Brewery building owner Doug Smith in 2009 to create an innovative and supportive environment in which startups could thrive. TechBrewery, a direct result of the team effort between Song and Smith, currently offers tenants shared desks for $75 per month, dedicated desks for $225 per month, or multiple dedicated desks starting at $200 per month.

Today, TechBrewery serves as an important segment of Ann Arbor’s highly interconnected geek community, along with organizations like a2geeks, Ignite Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor Mini Maker Faire, and A2 New Tech Meetup. TechBrewery itself has moved roughly 50 startups through their space, many of whom have remained in the Ann Arbor area to contribute to the city’s ever-growing tech economy.

Case Study

Check out our case study on TechBrewery for a closer look at their story, and advice on how to build a similar model in your own community!

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Samantha Audia, Michigan Municipal League Intern

SamanthaAudia-150x150Samantha joined the Michigan Municipal League team as an intern this winter, and will graduate from the University of Michigan in the spring with a degree in Political Science and International Studies. Previously, she has worked with several political non-profits in the Washington, D.C. area, and contributed to an array of publications. Samantha calls Garden City home but currently resides in Ann Arbor, and she looks forward to blogging for the League throughout the winter.

Throughout the last couple months, news and commentary regarding the water crisis in Flint, Michigan has permeated the media. MLive literally has a “Flint Water Crisis” sidebar, celebrity tweets abound, and the topic has predictably wheedled its way into presidential debates on both sides of the aisle. Indeed, it seems like the last couple months have passed by in a lead-induced haze of questioning, finger-pointing, protesting, and shock as government officials at every level take a step back to ask themselves how, exactly, we got to this point.

Flint is not the only city in America with ageing infrastructure; in fact, the CDC estimates that today at least 4 million households have children in them being exposed to lead, whether through water, paint, or soil. The difference is that, in Michigan, the outdated pipes are matched by an outdated way of governance that ties the hands of local governments and renders them less capable to provide the basic, quality services that my generation expects from the places in which we live.

Leaving Michigan’s Cities Behind

Situations like Flint’s water crisis occur when state leadership expects local governments to create something from nothing. Local officials are tasked with providing quality libraries, public buildings, police and fire services, parks, and city utilities, but they’re expected to do so in an era of financial crisis brought on (in part) by years and years’ worth of disinvestment in Michigan cities. For far too long, Lansing has accused Michigan localities facing operational deficits of mismanaging their finances. Yet simultaneously, they’ve robbed those cities of vital resources through a steady decline in state revenue sharing.
Flint Water (300x200)

Governor Snyder’s most recent budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year provides funds that ameliorate the devastating effects of the Flint water crisis. However, the budget includes no restoration in funding to statutory revenue sharing, an increase of which would allow some cities to overcome deficits, invest in better infrastructure, and even finance placemaking efforts. Consider: had Flint not been deprived of more than $54 million between 2003-2014, the city may have dodged the water crisis altogether.

Now, Michigan lawmakers are proposing solutions to mend Flint’s decaying infrastructure and facilitate the long-term health of the city’s residents. They would be wise to realize that if they neglect to proactively address the policy failures that brought on Flint’s crisis in the first place, a disaster of similar proportions could occur all over again in an equally vulnerable Michigan community.

One Step Forward, Three Steps Back

The irony that Michigan, the Great Lakes State, a state that has focused a wealth of time and resources rebranding itself as “Pure Michigan,” has provided lead-tainted water to Flint’s citizens isn’t lost on anyone, millennials in particular. At a time when millennial retention is so crucial to Michigan’s redevelopment, the situation in Flint sends up a huge red flag to members of my generation. Frankly, we wonder – which of Michigan’s cities will be the next Flint? Do we really want to gamble with our health and well-being by choosing to settle in Michigan?

In the past few years, Michigan has made meaningful strides marketing itself to recent grads looking for a place to call home. Although Michigan has a comparatively high population loss for educated adults aged 18 to 34, that rate has been decreasing yearly. Leaders concerned over the state’s “downward spiral” image finally started to breathe a little easier, confident in the fact that we’d seen the worst of it and that Michigan was on the rebound.

Pure Michigan Water (300x200)This newfound disaster should serve as a wakeup call that Lansing isn’t going to save Michigan – it has proven time and time again that it’s incapable of doing so. Nor will presidential candidates, the United Nations, or Cher’s social media game.

Rather, Michigan’s cities, townships, and villages, and the innovative communities that they foster, will ultimately be the differentiating factor in whether or not Michigan is able to market itself to members of my generation. We look for effective transit options, diverse populations, walkable streets, engaging nightlife, and sustainability in the places that we choose to settle. A team effort between committed businesses, thriving universities, engaged citizens, and local officials can provide these assets, and the state should empower them with the resources necessary to do so.

Going forward, the state’s ability to attract and retain millennials will directly correlate with its willingness to demonstrate commitment to its many communities. Bridging the disconnect between state and local priorities will allow cities to improve infrastructure, maximize local resources, venture into placemaking, and reinvent themselves as places in which my generation would be proud to live.

Because Flint is a reminder (albeit a tragic one), that if the basic infrastructure isn’t there, the place just can’t thrive.

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SamanthaAudia-150x150Samantha joined the Michigan Municipal League team as an intern this winter, and will graduate from the University of Michigan in the spring with a degree in Political Science and International Studies. Previously, she has worked with several political non-profits in the Washington, D.C. area, and contributed to an array of publications. Samantha calls Garden City home but currently resides in Ann Arbor, and she looks forward to blogging for the League throughout the winter.