Shopping locally: a source of civic power

Small businesses play a big role in bringing rural Nebraska communities together – via chambers of commerce, city boards, and civic volunteering. This Christmas, Andy Long plans to share in that civic spirit by shopping locally.

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Our democracy gives us the opportunity to elect our public officials at a local, state and national level. This is a powerful tool to help shape what we want to see happen politically in our country. Our free-market economy also gives us a chance to vote with our dollars when we make purchases. This is evident as we approach Christmas.

The National Retail Foundation expects holiday retail sales to be around $730 billion this year. This represents around 20 percent of all retail spending during the year. For retailers, it is an important part of the year.

In rural Nebraska communities, our small businesses are important parts of our community. Frequently, our retailers are involved in the chamber of commerce, city boards, and volunteer with civic organizations. They are important parts of what brings our community together.

It has been challenging to be a retailer in rural Nebraska. In McCook, when commodity prices were significantly higher in 2014, the community had retail sales of $164.6 million. Last year, when corn was half the price it was six years ago, retail sales in McCook were $142.6 million. During that same time, there has been an increase in the nation on buying online by 5 percent. In McCook, this would equal an additional $7.1 million bought online that once was to be bought in local stores.

On the expense side, health insurance and most operating costs continue to go up. This puts a squeeze on small independent retailers. Retailers have had to cut wages and staff and many have taken a hit to their personal incomes. This is based on the overall rural economy and national trends and not necessarily to any decisions they may have made.

To strengthen our local independent retailers, it’s important to shop locally this holiday season. When arguments are made for shopping local, it revolves around financials: The American Independence Business Alliance says that if you spend $100 at a local independent store, $48 stays in the community. For an in-town chain outlet, $14 stays, and for a remote online store, $1 stays – if the delivery driver lives locally.

I would like to expand this argument on the value of human capital that is generated when one shops at a locally owned store. In McCook, our locally owned businesses are very involved in our economic development efforts and the chamber of commerce. These local owners play important roles in civic organizations and volunteering. Many of these local owners also coach youth sports and put their stamps on a host of community events throughout the year.

Our rural Nebraska communities need owners – people who take ownership of decisions at the city council, school board, and county commissioners meeting. Owners who look for ways to make organizations stronger. Owners aren’t just punching a time clock; they’re building something that will hopefully outlive them, whether it is a community or a business.

Our civic organizations are stronger when we have more local owners. This holiday season, in our free-market system, I’m going to cast my economic vote for local independent owners. I know there are products I can’t buy locally or products I could buy cheaper online, but the purchases I make are also an investment in the future of my community. I encourage you to do the same.

Andy Long is executive director of the McCook Economic Development Corp. He also is director of Cultivate Rural Leaders, a nonprofit organization providing rural communities and organizations with leadership education. For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.

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