Chances are you're not familiar with Watertown Local First ... yet. After all, the non-profit organization just celebrated its first anniversary last week, but the strength of the group keeps growing as more and more local merchants join forces.
Watertown Local First hosted a party at the Mount Auburn Club on Oct. 4, which included a talk by a national speaker on the building of strong local economies.
Watertown Local First (WLF) has grown to about 50 members in the past year, including long-standing local businesses, such as Direct Tire and Auto Service, Arax Market, Russo's, Surface Works, Uncommon Grounds, V.I.P. Auto Watertown Savings Bank, Maximo's and Arsenal Center for the Arts, as well as newcomers who have just put out their first shingle.
Attendees at the gathering ranged from Strip-T's Restaurant, The Bookcase Factory Outlet and Kareem's Restaurant, to a young chiropractor who just started a business, an architect working out of her home, an "organizational developer" for nonprofits and a resident who drew a positive response when she introduced herself simply as "an eater and a shopper." Four town councilors also attended, as well as State Rep. Jonathan Hecht, D-Watertown and State Sen. Will Brownsberger, D-Belmont.
Aimee Bonacorsi, a family law attorney and mediator, came to the WLF gathering to meet other local business people and to listen to the speaker.
"I saw (in the brochure) that my auto body shop is also a member," Bonacorsi said.
Among other benefits, WLF members, who pay a $100 annual membership fee, get a listing on the organization's website and brochures, receive support for local shopping campaigns and social media blitzes, and can join in networking workshops and events.
The national "local first" trend is spreading, with groups having formed in at least 80 cities and towns, including nearby Cambridge and Brookline. Their mission is simple: to educate local consumers, businesses and government agencies about the sometimes unrecognized benefits of supporting locally owned and independent businesses.
"You hear experts talking about how to 'attract and retain' local businesses -- but that's an oxymoron," said speaker Michael Shuman, a noted economist and author of "Going Local," "The Small Mart Revolution," and "Local Dollars, Local Sense." "Real local businesses are already there – and they don't need tax abatements either. They create jobs that stay around. They're reliable – they're not going to move to Mexico or Malaysia."
Using several studies, including one by the Harvard Business Review, Shuman argued that community-based businesses have two to four times more impact on a local economy than outside chains, because they use more local suppliers, advertisers, attorneys and other services.
"They also attract tourists, make a walkable environment and promote more self-reliance," Shuman said.
He criticized public policy initiatives, including the federal stimulus program, for funding only large businesses. His advice to them was simple: "Stop destroying local businesses."
At one point, the speaker asked how many people patronized a local business in the past week. Everyone raised his or her hand. He then asked how many people invest in local businesses. One or two hands went up.
"It's hard to do," said Shuman. "Even 'socially responsible' mutual funds invest only in global companies."
The good news, Shuman said, is that changes in regulations have created new methods for investing locally, such as "crowd funding" and Internet-based businesses that are now allowed to manage IRAs that invest in local businesses.
"Wait until oil hits $500 a barrel," Shuman opined, "and then see where people want to shop."