"As soon as I opened Dandelion I said, ‘This is awesome, but there's something missing,'?" says Dandelion Communitea Café owner Julie Norris. "It's that much larger piece of having a business community. It's about having cooperation versus competition."
About a year ago, Norris and Emily Rankin, executive director for the local nonprofit Progressive Local Alliance for Community Enrichment, set about creating a concept to fuel their vision. They called it Ourlando, and they launched it online (www.ourlando.com) at the beginning of 2008. Then, during his January State of the City speech, Mayor Buddy Dyer introduced his own initiative: Buy Local Orlando (www.buylocal orlando.net).
On the surface the two programs encourage the same thing, a sort of new isolationist economics to help the business community weather the recession. But the city had craftily co-opted the "local" rubric used by successful programs in other cities while selectively forgetting that their program doesn't require businesses to be local or independent, per se, but merely to have a tax ID within city limits. The city was using the term "local" — a term that has gained meaning nationally in the trend toward supporting independent business — loosely.
As it turns out, the two programs couldn't be more different.
Ourlando may be a flighty concept with overly idealistic tendencies, but the city's Buy Local Orlando is a drape of cynical window dressing designed like a glorified chamber of commerce that pretends to address small business needs with corporate solutions, but ultimately just confuses the agenda.
At first, Norris was pleased with the city's Buy Local Orlando program; the more the merrier, she thought. But then she read the fine print on the city's website — basically a cut-and-paste recreation of the "local first" campaign in Austin, Texas — and found that in arguing its point, the city referenced numbers that didn't apply to its own criteria. To wit: "According to an economic analysis, for every $100 spent at a locally owned business, $45 goes back into the community and local tax base, and for every $100 spent at a non-local chain store, only $13 comes back to the local area."
The key to Austin's success with its "local first" campaign was its emphasis on independent, locally owned businesses rather than megaconglomerates that just happened to have an outlet inside city limits. Steven Bercu, president of the Austin Independent Business Association, heard about Buy Local Orlando through news reports, and chimed in with his own criticism (which is published on the Ourlando website): "In Austin we like to say that shopping at chains is like stealing from your neighbors," he writes, adding that the Austin program does not allow participation by franchises.
Norris and Rankin wrote a letter to the mayor: "The inclusion of any business into the city's program such as chains and big-box stores nullifies the city's ability to use these figures to promote their program." The city has said that chains like McDonald's and Target would be eligible so long as they pay taxes in the city.
That letter prompted an April 27 meeting with city business development manager Brooke Bonnett and Kathy DeVault, the economic development staffer assigned to the project. According to Norris, the two were quick to acknowledge the mistake and promised to remove the misleading figures from their website.
"Them realizing the error in their ways," says Norris, "that's the most important reason for us to be here `so` that we can make sure that we're clarifying that and making sure that we're representing the local community."
As it stands, Ourlando boasts about 30 businesses; they charge a yearly fee on a sliding scale from $125 to $250, depending on the business's income. Currently, any fees collected are going toward operations and paying Ourlando's sole staffer, Rankin. In the future, they hope to use any surplus for marketing and advertising, including a directory. It's a philosophy-rooted movement that hinges on a shared set of values.
"It's in line with the mission I started out with here," says Katie Reynolds, owner of Etoile Boutique in the burgeoning Milk District east of downtown and $125 member. She offers 15 percent merchandise discounts for Ourlando members. "It's less about strictly buying Orlando, but thinking about Orlando."
Conversely, the city's Buy Local Orlando campaign is solely about inclusive economic influence, no matter the type of business. Recent signees among the city program's nearly 100 businesses — which offers an introductory rate of $49 until June 1, when it will rise to $99 — include Arby's and Bright House (which offers marketing seminars rather than a discount). For their dues, businesses are given window decals, a place in the city's directory and business consultation with the Disney Entrepreneur Center; they are encouraged to set their own incentives for members who pick up membership cards from participating businesses.
According to city spokeswoman Heather Allebaugh, the city earmarked $50,000 for the program, with $12,850 going to Disney for guest speakers, $20,000 for collateral materials, and $7,500 for $42,000 worth of advertising placement on WMMO 98.9-FM. CBS Outdoor is donating 20 billboards. But does Arby's need business marketing guidance from Disney, or city-subsidized ads on a soft-rock station?
"The city can't solve everyone's problem," she says. "But we have the ability to leverage relationships. That's the benefit of being a city."
Also, she adds, "we've looked, and no one has a consistent definition of local."[email protected]