It is a widely heard message across Ohio: buy local. Consumers are encouraged to eat, drink, bathe, sleep, live, listen and build local. It is a notion that has gained significant momentum in recent years, despite the rise of multinational chain outlets. However, as one local group has discovered, living local is a hard slog.
"We are committed to local entrepreneurial ventures. Period," says Patrick Billows, co-founder of the Center for Righteous Aspirational Poverty. "We commend those organizations that refuse to be bought by big business, instead relying exclusively on local organizations, businesses and people to fund their enterprises."
Billows, the former proprietor of a boutique sweater shop, featuring goods only made using wool from regionally raised alpacas, opened the center in 2008 with his wife and business partner Amanda, who admits their venture was a bit shortsighted. "We launched in November and business was great for the first six months," she says. "When the weather changed in spring, business tanked and never recovered."
The center raises money for local enterprises by relying on fund-raising efforts at events throughout Northeast Ohio. To date, local philanthropy has helped the organization raise close to $800. "We gave $100 each to six different outlets that sell local products only." The pair kept $200 as rent money for Billows' brother, who the couple lives with.
"When we opened, we knew it would be tough; we took a vow of poverty to be local," says Renee Dintan, owner of Style Us, a clothing and record shop in Sheffield Lake. "We wanted to carry only locally made clothing and only sell albums recorded by Ohio artists." Dintan argues that the manufacture location of the vinyl is a moot topic given the artists' Ohio connection.
Business at Style Us has been tough, and Dintan sleeps on a pullout cot in the 400 square foot store and relies on a pay phone down the street from her storefront. "We read how interested people were in supporting local businesses – just go on Facebook, and it seems as if everyone is championing a local business," says Dintan. "I see lots of people talk about my store, but I don't think they're all really shopping here."
Jake Pembrooke may disagree. He owns Father's Farm Cottage in Portsmouth, Ohio, a quiet southern Ohio town where Pembrooke's restaurant business has been booming. "I read about the problems facing local retailers – heck, I even see them; plenty of businesses have come and gone since I opened the Farm Cottage, but we don't seem to be affected," he says. Since opening, Pembrooke's highly seasonal, highly local menu has won rave reviews, and residents are clamoring for a seat. "Everything we serve is from Ohio soil, and while it costs more, it certainly tastes better." An Ohio rib eye with local purple potato hash and a roasted corn maque choux made with local vegetables costs $39. The average yearly income in Portsmouth is $24,000. "Our profit margins are negligible," says Pembrooke. "From staffing, licensing, permits, food, billing, materials and all the other costs, we barely break even, which stinks because there's not much left we can reinvest in the community." It's an alarming trend, according to at least one financial analyst.
Bill Rearoro, a financial analyst with Bender & Beggs in Canton, says that this situation has historical precedence. "At one time, China was the technological and cultural center of the world," he says. "Yet, after years of self-imposed isolationism, the country crumbled. I see parallels to the misguided if well-intentioned business plans of today's entrepreneurs." Success comes at a price, too.
"I opened Primrose Particulars in 2004, selling a variety of locally made goods, from honey and soap to books and pottery," says Janet Primrose. "Yes, we carried lots of other goods to help pay the bills and help us continue to support the local artisans." Local critics saw things differently.
"Being local means you have to struggle, or 'you're not keeping it real,' I was told," says Primrose. "If you make money, you're clearly doing something wrong." Primrose closed her store in late 2009, and now lives in Florida.
[Photo by Kevin Nortz]