Contrast that with a retail experience you’re likely to enjoy at Vinomania, Gary Decker’s 11-year-old wine shop on Pearl Street. Decker greets visitors to the store with a smile and a ready base of knowledge of all things grape. Decker lives here, he spends his money here. When’s the last time a member of the Walton family came to town and you spoke to him or her about his or her passion? That’s right: never.
Chris Fowler lived in Boulder, Colo., and Austin, Texas, before returning home to Syracuse in 2005. As a young, single guy with no children, he simply lives here because he can. “I’m not tied to anyplace other than this is where I want to be,” he says. But he acknowledges that those two hip cities have figured out how to nurture their urban core, not with bigbox retailers but with locally grown services, trendy restaurants and customer-focused small boutiques and shops. He’d like Syracuse to think about doing the same, and with that in mind Syracuse First was born.
“Economic development in the future is going to be predicated on what is called ‘economic gardening,’ that is, not taking people’s flowers and putting them in your yard but nurturing the flowers that you already have in your yard to make sure they grow,” Fowler says. So when you’re shopping in Armory Square, spend some money at The Edge, 223 Walton St., instead of sterile Urban Outfitters just down the street.
“We need to help and support businesses to go from two employees to 100, if they want. We should not be trying to get some business that’s in Topeka, Kan., to move to Syracuse by offering them the world and your firstborn child,” he says. “Because if they’re willing to move here from Topeka, then they’re just as likely to go somewhere else if the deal is better. If you’ve got people who’ve made an investment in this community, you know there’s a good chance they’re here for a reason and they’re going to stay.”
Now numbering 160 members, Syracuse First is starting its second year. Fowler introduced the initiative to the community four months after it got going with a Shop Syracuse Week. While that kickoff could be labeled a success, Fowler also realized he had a lot of work to do to educate both merchants and shoppers. Still, the quest is gaining attention, as evidenced by his winning the Best Civic Booster honor in The New Times’ annual reader-driven Best of Syracuse poll.
“It was so new that we didn’t have that many businesses involved,” he says. “We’ve more than doubled in size since then. This year we’re focusing less on trying to create specific discounts and instead continuing to push people to do their holiday shopping at the Syracuse First businesses.”
Shop Syracuse Week begins Friday, Nov. 26 (and not at 3 a.m. like those big guys), and runs through Saturday, Dec. 4. “Our hope is to be able to do two weeklong events, one around the holiday season and in the summer, do a similar activity around Independence Day—celebrate independence by supporting your local independents.”
So what changes can you make in your holiday shopping habits to further this Syracuse First push? “You, as an individual, are an economic development agency,” Fowler says as his response when people ask that very question. We were enjoying some coffee and conversation at Sparky Town, 324 Burnet Ave., a Syracuse First member. In fact, owner Linda “Sparky” Mortimer is selling that coffee at her shop in half- and full-pound bags; purchasing your java there instead of at Dunkin’ Donuts (based in Quincy, Mass.) is an easy first step for a Syracuse First booster.
“Every person that spends money in a community has an impact. Two-thirds of the economy is consumer-driven and that means the four of us in this dining room, by choosing to come here to Sparky Town instead of TGI Fridays, have made a decision to have a positive economic impact on this community. It’s simple, easy stuff. It’s a cup of coffee; it’s lunch.”
Once you’ve mastered those little changes—getting your mocha from Freedom of Espresso instead of Starbucks—you can move on to the bigger items, like banking or purchasing an appliance. “Instead of having a bank account with Bank of America or HSBC, have one with Solvay Bank or with a local credit union,” Fowler urges. “It’s not complicated, but it’s a little more advanced for people to think about. Bank of America doesn’t have to reinvest your money into your community. When you bank with a credit union, by charter they have to invest 60 percent of that money back into the community.
“Solvay Bank doesn’t have huge investors from China, so that’s not the market they’re catering to,” Fowler continues. “They’re concerned about the market they serve, and that’s Central New York.”
As for your next refrigerator purchase, there’s this longstanding business on Burnet Avenue that doesn’t look like much on the outside, but inside the employees are more than happy to help you. “We’re trying to give some low-hanging fruit to people to realize how they can be part of a transformational process and take that first step,” Fowler notes. “So instead of going to Target to buy a TV, go to Ra-Lins.”
Concern about the city in which these business operate, and the owners live, remains a common denominator among Syracuse First businesses. “We really agree with a lot of their philosophies as far as supporting local business,” says Nick Ryan, co-owner with Joel Capolongo of Strong Hearts Café, 719 E. Genesee St., “spending money locally.”
Likewise, adds Decker, “It couldn’t make more sense to get involved. Who doesn’t want people buying from within? The money stays here: It goes in a circle and back into the city. Think of Starbucks, which does employ people from here. That’s good, but everything else comes from their corporate office and the money leaves town.”
So, armed with a list they’ve checked twice, holiday shoppers can elect to spend their money locally, and further enhance what Fowler calls the triple bottom line. “It’s not just economic vitality, but environmental stewardship, and community building and social impact. Buying locally means having a significant impact on the air we all breathe and potentially the water we drink.”
With that in mind, the duo at Strong Hearts strive to keep purchases as local as possible, putting the trendy term “locavore” into real practice. “Being a vegan café, aside from all the ethics, also entails environmental impact,” notes Ryan. “And that means getting as much food from local sources as possible. Although it is hard during the winter to get the pro duce we need from around here. Not all of our ingredients are 100 percent local, but we strive to do what we can.”
And that’s one of the beauties of a buy local movement: You do what you can, and every little bit makes a real difference. With that in mind, Fowler urges holiday shoppers to shift a mere 10 percent of their purchases from national or global businesses (remember Wal-Mart?) to locally owned independents. The result would be $130 million in new economic activity for Onondaga County, he says.
“The businesses that participate in the Shop Syracuse Week don’t have the marketing ability to compete with the national chains,” Fowler says. “And it’s not just retail either: It’s service-oriented businesses, it’s industries that support businesses.” Before you make your shopping list, check out the members of Syracuse First at www.syracusefirst.org.
Local and Vocal
While Shop Syracuse Week is Nov.26 to Dec. 4, the effort culminates Dec. 15 with a Buy Local Bash. Taking place at Orange Line Gallery, 106 Montgomery St., it serves as a fund-raiser-cumholiday party.
“We’ll be serving local wine and beer, local food, have a fashion show and have local music from Los Blancos,” says Chris Fowler, the founder of Syracuse First. “It’ll be a one-stop place to get a feel for all the different things that are going on locally and to celebrate the buy local movement.
Tickets for the event cost $30 for Syracuse First members, $40 for the general public. They are available at Syracuse First businesses and online at www.syracusefirst.org.
You’ll likely never feel a 10 percent shift in your holiday shopping to local firms; in fact, you’ll quickly realize it’s no big deal. Next time, aim for 20 percent. As for the 2009 Shop Syracuse Week, Fowler acknowledges he had no way to quantify if the event was a success or not. Still, the fact that he doubled the number of Syracuse First members afterwards is a convincing indicator.
“We tried to come up with ways to measure the impact we had,” Fowler says, “but we don’t have a system that’s mature enough to be able to get those measurements. So we did it anecdotally. We heard from most of the business owners that there was an increase in foot traffic and that people had heard and seen our advertisements. There was a sense of awareness about it and that’s all we could hope for—that at the end of the day people had a tangible knowledge that there is this Shop Syracuse Week going on.”Shop locally and you can be your own civic booster. “The buy local movement is not just looking at where we spend our money,” Fowler says. “It’s how do we make this community better? In the short term, it’s creating a vibrant, locally owned business community that’s reinvesting in itself. In the long term, it’s how do we efficiently use resources—including people—to improve the quality of life for everybody?”