Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Save Local First Wheaton

It was August 2007, and there we sat at a table in Downtown Wheaton: a Venezuelan baker, a Salvadoran restaurant manager, a Scottish tavern owner, a Cuban-American non-profit director, an Asian tea shop owner, a pretty economist from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and her husband, a redneck union guy from upstate New York. The rag-tag band had just won a big victory in getting the County Council to repeal its parking meter hour extension. Now we looked at each other and asked, “What’s next?”

For the Wheaton business community, the 2007 parking meter fight was a formative moment. The Central Business District (CBD) benefits from its vibrancy and cultural diversity, but it has been difficult to coordinate its many businesses across ethnic and language-based lines. That changed with the parking meter battle. Economic interest brought the businesses together to fight the county’s plan to extend parking meter hours. And in its aftermath, they decided to formalize their alliance in a new group: Local First Wheaton.

From the beginning, Local First Wheaton was not going to be a knockoff of the Chamber of Commerce. (The Wheaton-Kensington Chamber of Commerce in fact participated in creating the new alliance.) The new group would bring together businesses, non-profits and residents in order to promote locally-owned small businesses. The Latino Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) took the lead in coordinating Local First Wheaton but the businesses themselves made the decisions. The group’s first tasks were to recruit members (including associations and individuals), design a website and logo, engage in joint marketing through a business guide and help its members join together to sell grease for biodiesel fuel and buy wind energy.

As the economy worsened, Local First Wheaton’s joint marketing efforts became even more important. MANY businesses have left the Wheaton CBD in the last couple years, including Sabang, Bonifant Books, the Wheaton Bike Shop, Kefi Taverna, China Chef, Casa Furniture, La Despensa Mercado Latino and Barnaby’s. Several more are teetering on the edge. Now the group’s efforts to improve links between customers and the CBD became a matter of survival. As Local First Wheaton coordinator Emily Adelman has stated on this blog, 68% of money spent on a locally-owned independent establishment stays in the community. Every cent of that money can now make a difference between a local business’s success or failure. Business creation in Wheaton takes on even more meaning because many firms are owned by female or minority entrepreneurs. Finally, there may even be environmental benefits since residents who shop in their own backyard are less likely to take Beltway trips to Virginia.

The county has supported Local First Wheaton with a one-year $68,000 grant – enough to pay Emily Adelman’s salary. (Since Emily is a very capable Cornell graduate who could easily command twice that pay in the private sector, this is a great deal for the county.) But County Executive Ike Leggett has chosen to exclude the grant from his budget.

We understand that a tight budget demands cuts. Even more, it demands weeding out great programs from good ones, mediocre ones and poor ones. There are not very many $68,000 expenditures that simultaneously promote job creation, female and minority business ownership, community building, cultural diversity and CBD revitalization near a Metro station. Local First Wheaton does all of the above.

And that’s why it deserves to be saved.