National organization, Gazette team up for 'American Unchained' event 

The American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) and Oklahoma Gazette are teaming up to rally local restaurants, bookstores, bakers, coffee shops, mechanics and other businesses wanting to resist the market domination of corporate chains. Saturday marks "America Unchained," a national effort to urge consumers to skip over Wal-Mart, Target and other big-box retailers and spend money exclusively at locally owned businesses for that one day.


Jennifer Rockne, director of AMIBA, said "America Unchained" originated in Austin, Texas, where there is a thriving independent business alliance (IBA) that works under the battle cry "Keep Austin Weird." The concept was so successful that AMIBA decided the day should be promoted nationally. It was "America Unchained" that first drew the attention of Jeffri-Lynn Dyer, associate publisher of Gazette, to AMIBA.

"When I happened upon this national unchained event through the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, I saw that there are about 80 of us all doing this in their own communities to help create a sustainable economic impact," Dyer said.

Spurred on by success stories in other markets " as well as studies done on the economic impact of thriving local businesses " this year's "America Unchained" was designated the kickoff for Tierra Media Group's push to help establish an Oklahoma City independent business alliance. Tierra Media Group is the parent company of Gazette and OKCBusniess.

"For 30 years, the Gazette has been dependent on local businesses, our newspaper is circulated in mostly local businesses, and most of our advertisers are local," Dyer said. "Our whole mission is about growing local, so for the Gazette, this was a natural fit."

Dyer found a partner in an unlikely place, a microbiology research assistant named Lindsay Aye. She had recently moved back to Oklahoma City from Austin and had already contacted AMIBA in search of local businesses to shop at in the metro, only to find that no independent business alliance existed.

"I could see things are going on here, but I can't tell if the community really gets it," Aye said. "I just started researching Austin to figure out what made it work there and 'independent business alliance' was one thing I kept finding again and again."        

Rockne urged Aye to start talking to local businesses about starting a chapter. So, with an AMIBA portfolio in hand, Aye started recruiting.

"It was difficult because I don't have any good contacts," Aye said. "I tried to call, to get back in contact with owners, but I had a hard time getting a hold of anybody. It was discouraging to say the least."

That's when Tierra Media Group stepped in to help.

"It's our 30th anniversary year, so we are hoping to put together a comprehensive promotion throughout our anniversary year to recognize local businesses that have made milestones," Dyer said. "We also want to put together a brand and a campaign for buying local in Oklahoma and hopefully charter a nonprofit organization to take over all of that, to be the media backing for that."

Rockne insisted it takes a collaboration of consumer advocates and businesses to make an IBA work. Aye wants to continue working to help form an IBA in hopes of replicating the sense of pride she said Austin residents have in their town. There is even a phone book exclusively for IBA businesses.

"People walk around Austin and are just so happy to be there, there is something to be said for having pride in where you're from," Aye said. "I know Oklahoma City can do it, they just need that push."

"America Unchained" is strategically placed to be a standout day of shopping, so that the extra money spent will not be overshadowed by major holiday advertising pushes by the chain stores.

"We've got a reader promotion where people can pledge to spend $100 at a local business on Nov. 22 on the Saturday before Black Friday to try to make the economic impact obvious," Dyer said.

The day will not only infuse local economies with cash, but also help consumers to think local first. Rockne said IBA's biggest challenge is fighting the displacement of locally owned, independent businesses by absentee owners (chains that own businesses locally but are headquartered out of state).

"Your money spent on an absentee-owned chain store leaves town pretty quickly " it goes off to headquarters where it is paying the staff in the headquarters and helping an economy somewhere else," Rockne said.

A number of studies on AMIBA's Web site outline the economic impact on local communities when shopping occurs at independent businesses versus chains. A 2007 study conducted by the group Civic Economics for the San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants Alliance estimated that just a 10 percent shift in spending from chain stores to local businesses would create 1,295 more jobs, with an increased economic output of $191,984,904.

"Your money spent at locally owned businesses goes to those employees and owners who are going to be spending that money in the community as well," Rockne said. "Studies have shown that money spent at local businesses circulates three and a half times more than your dollars spent at a chain store."

The first IBA sprouted in Boulder, Colo., in 1997, when an activist and a bookstore owner wanted a find a way to promote community pride in its local businesses. The idea spread, with more than 50 IBAs springing up nationwide in small towns and large metropolitan areas alike.

Though the movement is gaining steam nationwide, Rockne said this region has had a slow start.

"It's interesting that there is a swath right down the center of the country, which includes Oklahoma, where there is nothing," Rockne said.

Rockne is hopeful that this early momentum will change that, and has heard from interested parties in Norman as well.

The first step in forming an IBA is finding businesses interested in cooperating. Rockne said AMIBA doesn't specialize in one particular type of industry. The Austin IBA even has a roller derby team in their ranks.

"The businesses most people think of are retail, but there are also independent service providers like banks, insurance agents, Realtors and all kinds of services along with restaurants," Rockne said. "There are nonprofit organizations that fall into that as well. We also look at employee-owned businesses and cooperatives."

What makes an IBA different from the local chamber of commerce?

"Chambers of commerce typically invite any kind of business into their membership," Rockne said. "They include some locally owned businesses, but also include franchises, big national chains. Wal-Mart usually joins the local chamber of commerce. You have to wonder how well a chamber of commerce can represent the unique needs of independent businesses in the community if they have the chains in their membership."

AMIBA isn't particularly focused on legislation to fight chains, but rather rallying local businesses to attract customers through strength of numbers.

"We don't even have to look at the chains anymore; we look at why we need to support our own communities and become more self-reliant," Rockne said. "Within the current economy, that has become very evident."

On the consumer side, Aye said IBAs make it easier to shop local by increasing the visibility of smaller businesses. Though it might take a little more digging to find them, she insists they are worth the effort.

"I like independent businesses because you can meet the owner, they bake the cookies that day, you can talk to them about what they do," Aye said. "Those people want your business and they care because they want their business to survive and flourish."

The national economic climate makes this a particularly poignant time to start a movement like this, Dyer said.

"We may be in a 'recession-proof city,' but individuals are feeling the crunch," she said. "So it's a great time to return to what works and what built the communities in the first place."  "Charles Martin

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