Guest Blogger: Jean Henry

Jean Henry is Special Agent for the Environment at Zingerman's. She grew up on a farm in Lebanon, Pennsylvania and came to Ann Arbor in 1984 to attend the University of Michigan. She bought a house on the Old West Side in 1988. After stints at many local small businesses, Jean and ex-husband Matt Banks renovated and operated Jefferson Market from 2000 to 2007. Jefferson Market was a neighborhood restaurant, grocery, pastry, coffee, toy, and gift shop with side work in catering, all in 1,200 square feet.  Past Jefferson Market staff and customers are still her local family.

Jean's food business habit started at Zingerman's in 1985, where she was employee #28.  She returned to the Zingerman's fold in 2008. Jean lives in that same house with her two children, Ada, 15, and Ezra, 7. The kids proudly attend Ann Arbor public schools and love this community as much as their mother. And they areREAL locals. 

We are not our buildings. We are our people, our places – and our small businesses.

For seven years, I awoke before sunrise most days to walk a few blocks through my neighborhood and open my business. It never felt like a chore or even a duty. It was a unique, if foggy, pleasure, a slow opening to what were almost always very busy and often chaotic days. When you own a small business, unpredictable demands can absorb a good chunk of your day. But those first hours had a clear sequence of tasks, a routine that offered an even-keeled start through whatever the rest of the day would bring. Even the early-morning customers were regulars, often ordering the same pastry and coffee day after day. There is beauty to routine. Every morning I was coaxed towards a sense of purpose.

These days, having sold my business to work a more standard 9-5, I wake up early to walk the dog. I often take a route through downtown and the farmer's market, seeing many of my fellow entrepreneurs – farmers, shopkeepers, mechanics, restaurateurs, and contractors – going about opening up their day to their own beautiful businesses. It still sets me off on the right foot. Just this morning Curtis Sullivan, honked, waved, and shouted, "Hey dude!" as he drove by with his son, headed to Vault of Midnight well before its opening hour. I love this town. These people, in their daily work, are bringing character, integrity, resilience and generosity of spirit to the community. 

While this may seem a quaint picture, there is more to it than that. The work of small businesses is a real engine in our economy. Ann Arbor has fared well through the recession relative to many other towns in Michigan, and this is due, in large part, to our thriving independent businesses. Borders is gone. Pfizer too. And, while the University of Michigan is an undeniable economic and cultural force, the money generated there stays in Ann Arbor best when there are thriving local businesses to take those dollars to train and pay staff, buy more local products and services and give back to the community through donations and the many daily generosities that often go unaccounted for.  

There are many studies to support my assertion. I've cherry picked a few. From Grand Rapids: $1 million spent at chain restaurants produces about $600,000 in additional local economic activity and supports 10 jobs. Spending $1 million at local restaurants, meanwhile, generates over $900,000 in added local economic activity and supports 15 jobs. ("Local Works: Examining the Impact of Local Business on the West Michigan Economy" – Civic Economics, September 2008)

From New Orleans: 16% of the money spent at a SuperTarget stays in the local economy. In contrast, the local retailers returned more than 32% of their revenue to the local economy. The primary difference was that the local stores purchase many goods and services from other local businesses, while Target does not. ("Thinking Outside the Box: A Report on Independent Merchants and the Local Economy" – Civic Economics, September 2009)

From Portland, ME: Every $100 spent at locally owned businesses contributes an additional $58 to the local economy. By comparison, $100 spent at a chain store in Portland yields just $33 in local economic impact. ("Going Local: Quantifying the Economic Impacts of Buying from Locally Owned Businesses in Portland, Maine" – Garrett Martin and Amar Patel, Maine Center for Economic Policy, December 2011)

And San Francisco: Every $1 million spent at local bookstores, for example, creates $321,000 in additional economic activity in the area, including $119,000 in wages paid to local employees. That same $1 million spent at chain bookstores generates only $188,000 in local economic activity, including $71,000 in local wages. ("The San Francisco Retail Diversity Study" – Civic Economics, May 2007)

I am still waiting for a study to be funded on the economic impact of independent local businesses in Washtenaw County. (U-M, are you listening?) All I have to go on is what I have observed since moving here for college in 1984.  I believe Ann Arbor's economic and cultural well-being can be gauged pretty closely by the health and diversity of its local businesses. There have been moments in time when our town, like many other high-income communities, seemed poised to be overrun by chain stores paying high rents, lasting only a few years and robbing our downtown of character and vibrancy in the process. Many people still believe this to be so. 

I don't. Almost every week a new independent business is taking root here (Maybe everyday – We need that study!), even at a time, post-2008, when access to capital for small businesses is very tightly constricted. People of will, courage and personal vision make it happen anyway. Their impact is evident in our growing and healthy local food system. Businesses are popping up in small corners of downtown, at the Tech Brewery on the North Side, and in strip malls tucked in out-of-the-way places. 

And Ypsi! A walk down Michigan Avenue, through downtown Ypsilanti and Depot Town, reveals a bevy of new businesses and cultural events run by people of creative and independent spirit, with a sense of community and a belief in the power of collaboration. When the non-profit writing center 826 Michigan, in the wake of Ypsi school closings, lost its after-hours program space, Beezy's, a restaurant on Washington, made its dining area available to them after hours. I do not want to underplay the serious economic challenges faced by the city of Ypsilanti, but you would never know it by walking through downtown Ypsi on a lively summer day lately. The streetscape downtown has utterly transformed in the past few years. And yet Ypsi is still Ypsi. It, like Dexter and Chelsea, has its own character and feel. We know these towns by their independent businesses, the third places where locals (and visitors) come together and come to know one another.

I'm lucky enough to know a lot of these new local entrepreneurs. Some of them have come to me for advice and feedback on their plans. I tell them about the mistakes I have made as well as the successes. If I don't have answers, it is easy enough to point them towards someone in the community who does. These conversations were fruitful and a few of us wanted to have more of them. We started a group for first-stage business owners called Small & Mighty. Our first gathering was at Pot & Box on Felch Street in Ann Arbor. Forty or so local business owners pulled away from the daily grind and gathered to talk shop. The room was like a buzzing hive of conversation. The food and drinks we shared were, not surprisingly, really good. We had butcher paper up on the walls asking folks what they would like the group to be, do, create and offer. Not much was written.   

The coordinators, Lisa Waud of Pot & Box, Helen Harding of Eat Catering and Take Out, and I gathered a week later to assess the event. It was convivial, but what got done? Those papers were left mostly blank. And then we started to tell stories, our own and those we heard from others.  People enjoyed themselves. A few got work. They were sharing tools, resources, spaces and information about the nuts and bolts of running a business. They were also kvetching, exposing fears, worries and self-doubt which, otherwise, they would likely keep to themselves. Others expressed the relief they felt just to occupy a room with people like them. We had affinity for one another, challenges in common and a willingness to share. We were on to something, but we weren't sure what. 

Honestly, we still aren't. A decision was made to let the organization grow in its own way, on its own momentum, with little or no funding. What can we make of what most economists would deem to be nothing? Our hunch was a lot. (We're scrappy like that.) Our only parameters were that members own their own businesses. There is a lot of assistance and support out there for start-ups, and deservedly so. Once you are actually running your own show, though, the set of challenges changes dramatically.  Small & Mighty would be a place to share those challenges and problem-solve together. We gather monthly (with summers off) in structured and unstructured events. We share successes and questions on a closed group Facebook page. We now have over 200 members from Detroit, Ypsi, Ann Arbor and even Jackson. We are still learning what we will be. Only time, initiative and our collective mojo will tell.

I am sharing Small & Mighty's first chapter here, so that those who worry about the fate of this community and preserving the character and vitality of its towns, can relax a bit. We are not our buildings. We are our people and our places and often the places made by our people. We're doing great, and we can become better with more community support, not just from citizens, clients, and customers, but from landlords, local banks, the universities, and the government. The county has put some effort this year into funding research on local-business economic development rather than pursuing big-dollar imports. That's a great start. Not surprisingly, a few Small & Mighty members are also working on local investment avenues. There has been talk about a local procurement policy at the city and county level. 

Grand Rapids has instituted a local procurement policy among other local economy initiatives and is now a nationally recognized example of the community prosperity that can be generated when a city focuses its energy on the economic development of local businesses. The 2008 GR study cited earlier found that "if residents of Grand Rapids and surrounding Kent County, Michigan, were to redirect 10 percent of their total spending from chains to locally owned businesses, the result would be $140 million in new economic activity for the region, including 1,600 new jobs and $53 million in additional payroll." Five years later, Grand Rapids has begun to realize the potential that study revealed.

Economic development matters, but only so far as it creates greater well-being, resilience and vitality for the communities it serves. I'll leave you with a quote from my boss, Paul Saginaw, co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses (now employing over 600 people in Washtenaw County), founder of Food Gatherers, board member of BALLE, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. Paul is an all-around swell guy and not one to mince words:

"Big business as usual isn't working for the people or the planet. Locally owned, independently operated businesses put us on a path towards sustainable, healthy, living economies and move us off the suicidal economic path we have been on."