Buy-local meeting hears old complaints with new drive for solutions

Shoppers in 2008 at Woolcott & Co., a Harvard Square yarn shop that closed after 32 years in business. (Photo: Chris Devers)

Some stories and complaints from the birth of Cambridge Local First were heard again Tuesday at a city committee hearing, even though the buy-local campaign is fast approaching its fifth birthday. But there were also vows of fast action — including the creation of an action committee to jump on the “50 items” written down during the meeting by committee chairman and city councillor Leland Cheung.

Local business owners’ listing of frustrations brought promises of follow-up by City Manager Robert W. Healy (he said he would look into a complaint by Toscanini’s ice cream owner Gus Rancatore that time allowed for commercial parking had shrunk to 15 minutes from a half-hour in some locations, for instance) but also some rejection of responsibility.

“You really want to play your major tune to the state legislature,” he told the entrepreneurs, pointing out that by state law the city couldn’t just fund Cambridge Local First or favor local businesses when it came to buying goods or services; a contract can be awarded only within a roughly 5 percent price difference. And he later told them to look elsewhere for a champion: “You will not find me beating my chest up on Beacon Hill.”

The Cambridge Local First logo on a local business. (Photo: Leo Reynolds)

But Laury Hammel, a health club owner who has made it his mission to keep local business scenes in shape in at least 26 cities around the nation, didn’t accept all of Healy’s argument.

He tackled headfirst the fact that, despite gathering almost 300 member businesses and taking such steps as the creation of identifying decals and a map of locally owned businesses, Cambridge Local First faced troubles discussed five years ago.

“We’ve been trying to work in Cambridge unsuccessfully for many years. We haven’t been able to make any headway,” said Hammel, a city resident for about a decade. “Cambridge has historically been a leader … we were the leaders of the abolitionist movement and a center for the Underground Railroad. We were a leader in the peace movement, the civil rights movement, a leader so many movements. Yet when it comes to the local economy movement, for whatever reason the city of Cambridge has not engaged or partnered with Cambridge Local First at the level that’s happened elsewhere in the country.”

Salt Lake City, its country and the Utah state government all have line items providing contributions to buy-local programs, and there are government contributions in Seattle and Chicago, he said. Massachusetts’ Department of Environmental Protection has contracted with Hammel-founded organizations, and even Boston has contributed almost $100,000 to local-business programs, he said. But Cambridge has been reluctant to commit.

“We will sit down anytime, anyplace,” Hammel said.

Hammel and local-first organizations base their arguments on repeated studies confirming the “local multiplier effect” described by John Maynard Keynes in 1936. One often-cited study was of two bookstores in Austin, Texas, that found:

45 percent of the expenditures of a locally owned bookstore stayed in the local economy while only 13 percent of the money generated by the national store stayed close to home. Roughly speaking, every dollar spent at a locally owned store contributes three times more to the local economy — three times more income, three times more jobs, and and three times more tax benefits

Bloomberg Businessweek cited a Minneapolis study looking at overall retail sales in the past holiday season, which were down were down 0.3 percent in December and up 1.8 percent in November, while sales at stores that were part of buy-local campaigns were up an average 2.2 percent.

So there’s an economic benefit, Hammel argued to Healy, and Michael Kanter, owner of Cambridge Naturals, said advancing the buy-local campaign could be part of Healy’s legacy.

The city manager brushed aside some of the rhetoric.

“I don’t think we’re in Utah anymore, Toto. It’s a different law,” Healy replied to Hammel, but he also pointed out that the city had spent $14 million with local businesses this fiscal year, not including $6 million spent with the Cambridge Health Alliance.

He also offered some encouragement before leaving the table with a genial, if gruffly amused, wave. “I’m not arguing, I’m not debating with you, I agree with you,” he said. “Change the laws.”

Solutions

Gavin Kleespies, of the Cambridge Historical Society, suggested there were other ways the city could adhere to state law but ensure local businesses won out as vendors over cheaper big-box stores, such as Framingham-based Staples, or online stores, which have the advantage of ducking taxes bricks-and-mortar shops cannot. A 5 percent reimbursement fund could allow city government to buy from a slightly more expensive local vendor, Kleespies said.

Participants argued academia was the worst offender in terms of buying online instead of locally, but the suggestion for the city’s universities and larger businesses to be persuaded to buy local had unhappy echoes of a similar, but largely unsuccessful and forgotten, effort in the late 1980s.

The Harvard Square corner space that was The Tasty Sandwich Shop for 81 years is vacant after becoming Abercrombie & Fitch and Pacific Sunwear chain shops and space for a high-end watch seller. (Photo: Wally Gobetz)

The changing face of Harvard and Central squares sounded familiar as well, both in complaints about the loss of customer parking but onslaught of parking tickets and the increasing number of chain stores and banks resulting from skyrocketing rents. Kleespies’ entire presence was to argue in favor of local businesses making memories, and Porter Square Books’ Jane Dawson told of tourists walking around Harvard Square looking helplessly for The Tasty Sandwich Shop, the long-closed coffee shop where Matt Damon sat in “Good Will Hunting.” Rancatore said there was another concern unique to Central Square: Customers were being scared away by encounters with street people.

Amid the larger issues, though, there were several smaller, concrete items that could be addressed more quickly.

A suggestion was heard for Cambridge to help launch a kitchen incubator, as Jamaica Plain has, and for zoning and permitting to be eased to allow creative “pop-up” stores to occupy otherwise empty spaces. There was also a call for more bicycle parking.

The roughly 25 participants and observers shook their heads over anecdotes about scaffolding draped in front of businesses undergoing construction — blocking views of the business but not protecting pedestrians, who walked within the scaffolding; the city’s refusal to pick up businesses’ trash, even when businesses offered to pay the same amount as they would for private haulers coming far out their way; and more burdensome zoning and permitting laws that required Charles Marquardt, of Coady Florists, to hire a lawyer, spending more than three months and up to $5,000, just to put up a wall to create space for a take-away dry cleaning business. The city might be more helpful to big businesses than small, some said.

Cheung said he was excited to get to work on several of the ideas and complaints.

Healy, although he said he was aboard with helping — and excited the participants by his very presence, when he could have sent a representative — had an acerbic bit of advice:

“Pick your issues,” Healy said. “Pick your issues where you want to make a victory at the State House. Where is the point where you could change a state statute that could help this organization? You wind up working an entire year for that.”

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