Tug of War

By - Nov 1st, 2007 02:52 pm
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Milwaukeeans went into a tizzy with the arrival of Whole Foods Market a year ago – was a national anchor in the East Side business district a sign that the city had finally arrived? Would Whole Foods serve as a “tentpole” for other natural and organic businesses in the city? Or would they jack up rent, lowball prices and drive the competition out of town? Would they be receptive to the sensitivities of the East Side community, or would they homogenize the neighborhood? And really, all fuss aside, wasn’t it a good thing that a huge, attractive corporation chose blue-collar Milwaukee, that long-neglected diamond-in-the-rough, for only its second location in the state?

Now, for better or worse, Whole Foods is here. And by the end of the year, Urban Outfitters will be here too, in the Kenilworth Building just across the street. Anthropologie, also part of Urban Outfitters Incorporated, will open a location in the gentrified Third Ward. We have a Borders downtown, Starbucks courting our coffee loyalties, and a whole enclave of national retailers in the new Bayshore Town Center, including fast fashion marts like H&M and Forever 21 and super-cheap specialty grocer Trader Joe’s.

We have more choices than ever before, which in some ways is welcome (who doesn’t love a two-buck bottle of decent wine, or a cute, cheap cardigan) and in some ways poses complications. How do we square up our love for a truly unique and personal shopping, dining or service experience with our lust for convenience, a great deal and free parking?

Buying Your Way Out

“This area, like the Brady Street area, is a healthy commercial neighborhood. It has been for years, and it is dominated by local independent businesses,” says Pat Sturgis, co-owner of East Side institution Beans and Barley. The independent natural foods grocer and restaurant has been in business for 33 years at the corner of North and Farwell – right across from the new Whole Foods.

“As American consumers, we have really been trained in a very conscientious way to look for consistency. When you go somewhere else, you go to the mall, find the Cheesecake Factory, find a Crate and Barrel, go to someplace that is indistinguishable from any other place in the country,” Sturgis says. “There’s a Starbucks on Brady Street, but there are three other coffee shops, and those are healthy things.”

Beans and Barley struggled after Whole Foods opened – especially for the first few months. A year later, sales have recovered, and their restaurant and deli sales have grown.

“On the other hand, we were on our way to a record year [when Whole Foods opened],” Sturgis says. “It’s going to take a lot more work to get back to breaking any sales records here.”

Rachel Ida Buff, a history professor and urban studies researcher at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a lifelong co-op patron, had her reservations when the new Whole Foods was announced. A year later, her ambivalence holds.

She moved to Milwaukee from Toledo three years ago, and as a scholar and a new resident, has observed Milwaukee’s community relationships and its personal sense of consciousness.

“I think [Whole Foods] makes us feel like we’re on the map. It makes us feel like we’re buying our way out of terrible social situations,” she says. “We’re really being asked to compensate for the degradation of our environment through consumerism. You’re supposed to buy your way out of unacceptable national food surveillance – and I don’t think that’s the fault of Whole Foods.”

Regardless, we all make our consumer choices, balancing whatever sense we have of individual responsibility with the needs of our lifestyles.

“Whole Foods is really smart,” Buff says. “They’ve created a place that feels lovely – but it’s not. It’s corporate, it’s mass-produced. Co-ops like Outpost, in order to survive, have had to become more like Whole Foods and less grassroots. The Riverwest Co-op is what a co-op is supposed to be – but it’s also hard to find stuff to buy there. As a working mom, if I have 30 minutes to shop, I’m going to go to Pick ‘n Save.”

Our Milwaukee

Outpost Natural Foods was a touchstone of discussion about the “Whole Foods Effect” – how would Outpost, the co-op established in Milwaukee in 1970, adapt and compete with Whole Foods?

Pam Mehnert, Outpost’s general manager, admits that the company has had to reevaluate its strategies as more food retailers begin to carry natural options.

“Everybody is carrying organic foods – what was once unique in our product line is no longer unique,” Mehnert says. “The challenge is really rediscovering who we are. It can’t only be about what we carry – it has to be a wider experience of what the business stands for, what the business brings to the community. The experience you have in the store – with our staff, with other customers, what we’re doing in our store that day, [the] local products in our store, [the] relationships with farmers that we started back in the ‘80s … People start to think about the intrinsic value of where they spend their money, and how that makes them feel.”

Outpost has grown in the past 37 years: today they have three stores. Their latest opened in Bay View in 2005, largely because members of the community spoke to their alderman about having Outpost replace the grocery store that had just closed in the neighborhood.

“That location speaks to how Milwaukee has changed – there are communities that are saying ‘we don’t want these cookie cutter businesses here; we want something different,’” Mehnert says.

For the past year and a half, Outpost has been meeting informally with seven other local businesses to sound off about the challenges they face, help each other cross-promote and explore the formation of a local business alliance. The committee contacted the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), established in Philadelphia in 2001 to promote sustainable business practices like renewable energy, green building, zero-waste manufacturing and an independent media. Today BALLE is a network of more than 50 cities in the United States and Canada, providing resources and support in their stated mission “to catalyze, strengthen, and connect local business networks.”

Milwaukee’s local business initiative, tentatively called “Our Milwaukee,” is modeled on BALLE networks in Chicago and Dane County and includes eight founding members: Outpost, Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops, Alterra Coffee Roasters, Laacke and Joys, The Pabst Theater/Riverside Theater/Turner Hall Ballroom, Beans and Barley, Brewery Credit Union and Lakefront Brewery. Their first campaign, slated to launch during the holidays, is to raise consumer awareness about local business and persuade people to spend about 10% more of their money locally.

“We don’t want to be anti-chain; we want to be pro-local,” Mehnert explains. “There’s really nothing wrong with chain stores; they’re part of capitalism and part of what exists. [But] smaller local businesses don’t necessarily have the marketing power to do what larger businesses can. [And] if price is the most important thing all the time, then we’re not going to grow a local economy.”

That’s Right- The Economy


There’s more to supporting local business than feeling good about our “local flavor.” While a city’s personality is invaluable, and the extent to which residents feel invested in a community determines that community’s strength, it does come down to dollars at the end of the day.

In 2004, Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood hired Civic Economics, an analysis and strategic planning consultancy, to study the economic impact of local and chain businesses. The study found that for every $100 spent with an Andersonville firm, $68 remained in the community economy. For every $100 in consumer spending with a chain firm, only $43 remained local. A similar Civic Economics study of local music and bookstores in Austin, Texas found that 45% of every dollar spent locally stayed in the community, compared with only 13% spent at a chain.

While intuition – and community developers – tells us that competition is always good for businesses in the free market, chain retailers have been statistically shown to be damaging, not only to existing independent retailers, but to the local economy as a whole.

“Nationally, the number of retail stores has been declining dramatically over the past decade or so as it becomes tougher to run a business in a world of major chains,” says Matt Cunningham, a partner with Civic Economics. “We have proven that shopping locally-owned businesses can leave much more money in the region than shopping at national chains.”

“The presence of local businesses is really an indicator of economic health,” Pat Sturgis says. “Chains can stay in business for quite some time, even when they’re doing poorly. Some of them don’t even pay taxes locally. Corporate income taxes can go to where the parent corporation is, and a lot of those corporations are located where there are no local income taxes.

“It’s a real dilemma.”

Still, Sturgis stresses the importance of balance in any neighborhood, and his hope that Our Milwaukee will be a check on the imbalance of national corporations – which are not, he says, to be snuffed out.

“Any area needs both. To me, having Urban Outfitters move into this neighborhood is a good thing. To a certain extent, the presence of nationally-based businesses will bring in more customers. Assuming that [they will] do good business, having them in the neighborhood is going to help us and [independent clothiers] Detour and Moxie – do well.”

His hope for the continued vitality of Milwaukee’s independent businesses and local color is especially informed by the high volume of young students he encounters on the East Side – a demographic that has grown recently with the new Kenilworth Building, which serves as student housing as well as retail space.

“The people who are coming into the target demographic of major economic activity – 18 to 34 year olds – is a group of people I feel is characterized by real commitment to independence … I think the flavor of this group of people is really independence, and much less of an affinity for going the clearly marked road.”

Areka Ikeler, 29, embodies this maverick spirit. In Bay View – a revival neighborhood free of national retailers – she runs Fashion Ninja, a boutique, clothing label and school of sewing and fashion design. She is almost entirely a one-woman show, and everything she sells is made in Milwaukee, whereas most labels, even independent labels, manufacture in China.

“The whole city is growing and I feel the growth and everything is getting better,” she says. “Anthropologie is coming to the Third Ward, [but] I’ve developed a business where – I hate to be so confident outright – but it’s very special, what I’m doing. Anthropologie will be Anthropologie, Fashion Ninja will be Fashion Ninja, and to each his own to decide where they want to shop. I want to be in a healthy culture with a good economy where people can shop and make decisions. I want to see that my work is appreciated, that people buy Fashion Ninja because they can and they like it.”

Areka thinks the truly conscious consumer can spend about 25% of what they make locally. For her, there’s more to buying local than just the value of a dollar.

“Personally, I need a deeper sense in what I do, a more connected experience, always. If I’m buying someone a gift, I’m going to Paper Boat [Boutique]. I like the experience of supporting a local shop, feeling like I’m helping a community. I like gaining friendships with local people.

“People don’t want the strip mall, [which] can always survive. People like to come into the 100-year-old building and see one girl running this place with no computer, handwriting the receipts.”

But it takes more than kick-ass attitude to stay alive in a branded, big-box world. It takes a village, as they say, of connected, supportive, participatory local businesses – and awareness in the community about who local businesses are and how they serve the community as a whole. Viva Milwaukee – and the people and places that make us who we are.


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