Buy Local movement emerging in South Portland

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SOUTH PORTLAND — In a city known for big-box stores and the Maine Mall, which is filled with national retailers, visibility can be difficult for locally owned small businesses.

But a group of merchants are hoping to change that by launching South Portland Buy Local on March 16 at the Snow Squall restaurant.

South Portland joins Portland and Scarborough in launching buy local campaigns. Portland Buy Local has been around for nearly four years and claims 250 members. Buy Local Scarborough was recently launched and has more than 50 members.

Local business leaders have been quietly meeting for the last year to develop the South Portland campaign. Now that the group has registered as a nonprofit with the state, it is recruiting members.

“The response has been tremendous,” Buy Local Vice President John Platt said. “I can barely get the words out and the owners say, ‘Sign me up.’ I think it is something the business community is happy to see happening.”

The movement started with a dozen businesses, according to South Portland Buy Local President Dani Nisbet, but now has 30 to 40 businesses signed up. The goal is to recruit between 75 and 100 businesses by March 16, she said.

While the community has typically supported local businesses, Nisbet said the group hopes the initiative will help diversify the types of business in the city and create more entrepreneurial opportunity and competition.

“Studies show that almost three times as much money stays in Maine and South Portland when we buy local,” said Nisbet, owner of Belissimo Salon on Ocean Street. “The impact we have on our own economy could not be more important given where we are today.”

Platt, who owns Nonesuch Books in the Mill Creek Shopping Center on Market Street, said he hopes young entrepreneurs will chose South Portland to start their businesses.

“Young entrepreneurs shake up things,” he said. “They don’t have any fear and they don’t live in the same paradigms.”

Platt said a business is eligible to join South Portland Buy Local under three conditions: the business must operate in South Portland, its owner must be a Maine resident and, if the business is a franchise, it must be headquartered in Maine.

Businesses must pay an annual membership fee of $50 and will be featured on a Web site, which is still under development. Business owners will also be offered seminars and participation in unified marketing campaigns.

Buy Local’s purpose, Platt said, is to provide a support structure for local businesses through these unified marketing campaigns and to educate the public about the benefits of buying local, as well as fostering good working relationships with the community and local government.

“It’s kind of a two-fold organization,” he said. “We want to support locally owned businesses and entrepreneurs, while at the same time be big supporters of our community.”

City Councilor Patti Smith said she enthusiastically supports the grassroots initiative, since she has seen the benefits Portland Buy Local’s movement have had for her employer, Planet Dog.

“I think it’s the right time,” she said. “There is something that feels really good about keeping the money in local communities.”

Smith said the movement could help spur clusters of small businesses in areas like Willard Square and along the Broadway corridor. She said she hopes the movement will help South Portland businesses emerge from the shadows of not only the mall-area franchises, but also businesses in Portland.

“It’s a different downtown geographical situation, yet we still have some great independent businesses that I feel like are in the shadows of Portland,” she said. “I hope this can expose what great opportunities there are in South Portland.”

Although Buy Local campaigns are inherently opposed to chain businesses – which makes up much of South Portland’s tax base – Smith said the city’s unique geography should allow both to coexist.

“To me, we have the best of both worlds,” she said. “Both have a place in our economy.”

The public kick-off event at the Snow Squall will run from 5-7 p.m. and will include a cash bar, giveaways and displays from local businesses.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]