How Buying Local Works to Connect People, the Community and Public Schools
By Frances Nevill
Progress can be the result of years of hard work in the making—or it can come in a matter of seconds with the onset of a good idea in the shower. Franzi Charen, owner of Hip Replacements vintage clothing store and a member of the Asheville Grown Business Alliance (AGBA), shows us that however long it takes building local partnerships are worth the time, love and effort. The result of that effort? A business consortium that pays it forward with an investment in the next generation.
For our readers who aren’t familiar with AGBA, please give us some background as to how this all came about.
Asheville Grown started as a conversation amongst merchants in August of 2009. The merchants on Lexington Avenue were faced with the upcoming holiday shopping season, and we wanted to plan some sort of effort to ensure its success and boost our local economy. We knew there were these “buy local” message campaigns going on around the country. We wanted to plan ours around some educational effort that reminded people why they fell in love with Asheville and what makes our community unique. We focused on the uniqueness that is not just the natural beauty, but also the uniqueness that comes from locally owned independent businesses. We met for hours and talked about doing stickers on bags, posters and some sort of flyer. All of these things were intended to spread the message of supporting the local community. But it just didn’t end up going anywhere and Black Friday came and went.
It was the last week of November, and I was in the shower, and just had this great vision come to me of every employee in town wearing the same t-shirt, with the same message for one day a week during the holiday shopping season. So instead of us wearing our own individual store logos and competing against each other, we’d have this one message—kind of like a mobile billboard. I wanted the t-shirt to communicate that by supporting local businesses, you are really supporting the heart of Asheville.
How did you move the idea forward?
I got about 12 businesses to get on board with the idea of having their employees wear this t-shirt for all the Saturdays in December. I recruited a local printer who gave us the best price they could and found a designer to come up with a logo. The week we were to launch it, I hadn’t received the artwork for the shirts. So the only thing I could do was stay up all night and work on the design myself. I’m not a designer, but I thought, “This just has to happen.” So out of that process, “Asheville Grown Buy Local” came about. Once the logo was complete, we got the press involved, we got a local printing company to help out with printing 200 posters, and I ran around downtown posting them in windows.
It was really a grassroots campaign, and I thought it was something we would just do for the holiday season. But what was really inspiring to me was that when Valentines Day came about, folks downtown came to me and said, “Let’s do it again.” They wanted to get people thinking about buying local for Valentines, eating local and things like that. I got inspired by playing around with the logo, and then I came up with “Love Asheville, Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is.” It was back to the printer for 200 more posters and a larger crew to help get the word out. This time we reached West Asheville and North Asheville. From then on we started calling ourselves the “Asheville Grown Business Alliance.”
Visually, the logo is eye-catching. What were you thinking as you designed it.
I wanted to invoke a time when Asheville was very prosperous in the 1920s. I wanted the logo to have almost a letterpress-type feel to it, maybe slightly Art Deco. And I wanted the message to be very clear, very simple.
What is the current status of AGBA?
Our success and growth has really been organic. We have a steering committee of ten members, and we’ve kind of grown into a year-round campaign. We decided not to become a nonprofit because we felt that Asheville is saturated with nonprofits, and we didn’t feel it was our place to compete with nonprofits in a time when many are struggling. We also didn’t want to be membership driven in the sense that we require funding from our members. If you own an independent business, you’re already included in our membership. We want our members to do their part at the level they feel works best for them. Business owners are already doing a lot in terms of what it takes to run their companies. And we’ve found that part of our success is putting the responsibility back onto community. So you’ll see posters from our local radio station with a message of “Listen Local,” breweries with “Brew Local,” restaurants with “Eat Local” and so on. These are all messages coming from the community that they feel reflects their work and their contribution to the local independent economy.
The Go Local Card (GLC) adds an interesting component to the whole Asheville Grown campaign.
The GLC is great because it puts consumers in touch with 360 businesses who accept the card. It also helps raise money for Asheville public schools. The Asheville City School Foundation came to us because they wanted to replace a corporate-based fast food fundraiser they had been doing for years. They wanted to replace it with something that was more locally-based. So we worked with them to create a card that enabled the cardholder to present it to a local business and receive something special like a discount or a two-for-one offer or something along those lines. We didn’t want to limit it to retail or food, so there are business-to-business discounts as well. The card can be purchased for $15 and $10 goes back to the schools and the other $5 goes into covering the costs of the card. Last year we raised $10,000 for the whole year. This year, we’ve raised $10,000 in just the first two months of 2013. So we are excited about the potential of the card.
As a businesswoman, how have you managed to juggle running your own business in addition to your work promoting the AGBA?
The clothing shop we own luckily has a great, loyal customer base. We have owned the shop for a little over 4 years. We have thought about growing it or expanding it, but we decided to concentrate on making our business as good as it can be in the space it’s in. This has given us the time to expand our passions for other things. For Kip Veno, my partner, that means more time for his music (he is a member of the local band Pleasure Chest), and for me I have really enjoyed the community work that comes with the AGBA.
Tell our readers why you love Western North Carolina?
One thing that comes to mind is that I love the tensions created by the clash of cultures we have available in Western North Carolina. Asheville itself is a collection of so many different cultures, mindsets and ideas. It’s interesting because it’s a community heavily rooted in the south, but you can come here with your own ideas and thrive. It’s really beautiful and it says a lot for our community. You don’t find that everywhere.
For more information about the AGBA, purchasing the Go Local Card or to learn about upcoming ABGA events visit ashevillegrown.com.
Frances Nevill is a freelance writer who writes about the people and places that make the southeast unique.