The city’s Buy Local Orlando program runs off into the sunset

Dubious promotion of "local" businesses ends as Main Street neighborhoods rise

Buy Local Orlando program closing down on March 15

Back in 2009, the city caught some local heat when the mayor announced Buy Local Orlando, a window-sticker and membership-card merchant promotion intended to encourage Orlando consumers to patronize local businesses, as many were suffering the effects of the recent recession. The problem was that the city wasn’t able (or, possibly, willing) to distinguish between truly homegrown outlets and broader franchises (like Arby’s) and big-box retailers, because eligibility was merely contingent on having a tax ID within the city.

The initiative drew criticism from local business owners Julie Norris and Emily Rankin, who had already launched a more holistically local promotion called Ourlando in 2008, modeled after the Keep Austin Weird initiative in Austin, Texas. The city, at the time, was citing the same Texan source of inspiration, something the Ourlando group succeeded in challenging and eventually having removed from the Buy Local Orlando website.

“[The city] meant well with it. What they were trying to do was good,” Norris recalls. “But they have a history of, instead of supporting efforts that are already ongoing – grass-roots efforts with authenticity – they like to make it their own.”

As of March 15, Buy Local Orlando, which was estimated to cost $50,000 in city money at its inception, will no longer belong to the city or to anyone – it’s scheduled to sunset on that date. But not without its share of success, says city spokeswoman Cassandra Lafser. Since its inception, the program distributed more than 100,000 cards to consumers, with more than 500 businesses participating. In 2011, the program was rebooted to include a stronger web presence and a mobile app, resulting, Lafser says, in 75,000 web hits, 7,000 app downloads, 4,000 Facebook “likes” and 3,500 Twitter followers.

The program has succeeded, and that’s why it’s no longer needed, according to the city.

“Buy Local Orlando was launched in 2009 to help Orlando’s business owners weather the economic downturn by creating awareness of the benefits of shopping local,” Lafser says in an email. “Today, downtown Orlando and the city’s eight Main Street districts are thriving.”

Because of that, the city will “focus our resources on initiatives that will help take these commercial districts to the next level,” Lafser continues.

As for Ourlando, it, too, has fallen into inactivity, primarily because it didn’t have the funding required to sustain it, says Norris. But there’s also a sense that the community has changed dramatically in recent years, with homegrown populism – via festivals and farmers markets – and the Main Street neighborhood initiatives creating a new local awareness. In that sense, all’s well that ends well.

“In the long run, it was helpful,” Norris says. “But when people redefine words, it becomes confusing for everyone.”

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