Back when I was running the Santa Fe Alliance for locally owned independent businesses, we had this membership rule: 51 percent or more of the business had to be owned by the person living in Santa Fe. Every now and then we’d get a call from a business owner from Bernalillo County or Río Arriba County asking if they could join the Alliance. And, always, our answer was yes, if the business was 51 percent or more owned by a person living in Santa Fe County. And every time we answered that question I challenged the board and staff to think about this a little more. What if the business was a farm in Río Arriba that sold goods in Santa Fe? Isn’t that OK? What if the business owner lives in Albuquerque now but still has the business in Santa Fe? Doesn’t the business tax get paid to the city of Santa Fe, making it a viable member for its contributions to our town? Who cares where its owner is located, as long as the owner is the majority shareholder or owner and resides in our state?
When the economy hit bottom in 2009, I pushed hard and suggested that perhaps we needed to think about a regional economy that would help grow not only our city but also the small towns around northern New Mexico. Sure, that made sense for farmers and food producers because Santa Fe is not exactly the urban farming center of New Mexico; we need the Española Valley farmers who transport and sell their goods in our city. But what about manufacturing of other items? Couldn’t we think of a linked regional economy that kept money in our state, not just in our county? Shouldn’t we be thinking of our rural neighbors who are desperate for jobs and resources? If we could grow the pie statewide, wouldn’t that help everyone?
Let me tell you what regionalism is not. It is not a big business or corporation creating a widget that is sold out of the state for some other big company or consumer. It is not a corporation, the headquarters of which is in another state and whose basic, back-office services are performed in other cities (think accounting, marketing, web and graphic design). Those things are like strip-mining a community, that is, paying a basic wage, a basic tax to our city, county or state, but offering no returns to the community it is positioned in.
Regionalism is a method of production and distribution that is geographically localized, rather than national or international. However, because there is no universally agreed-upon definition for the geographic component of what “local” or “regional” means, consumers are left to decide what local and regional means to them. Even government departments and organizations I work with cannot seem to define regional. I offer this definition of “regionalism” as a system that:
- supports and grows its locally owned businesses, so that better, more meaningful jobs are provided
- •gives back to the community in the form of contributions to our nonprofits, tax base and volunteerism
- is equitable, engages in fair trade and decentralization of power and supports the theory that “we all do better, when we all do better”
- supports choosing local resources for supply chains
- respects our most precious natural resources
- considers a geographic region and the businesses, supply chain, residents and labor within that geographic area
In Newark, N.J., I’m fortunate to be involved in a project in an urban neighborhood that is addressing its own food-desert issue and access to healthy food and jobs. The Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District is a nine-acre urban neighborhood with a beautiful green park in its community’s heart, with newly retrofitted and renovated green buildings for artists and business owners to live in and work from. The neighborhood lacks a grocery store, a farmers’ market or any other way to purchase local food. There are plenty of fast-food restaurants, ethnic eateries and local restaurants. But it’s easier to buy a bottle of scotch and a pack of cigarettes than it is to buy a fresh apple in this historic urban neighborhood just blocks from downtown.
My consulting partner and I first looked at the region, asking what is happening in the area, starting with neighboring districts, then going outward from there to the areas outside the downtown core, then even further to the neighboring cities, then into the region. We needed to know what was happening and what local food was being grown before we could think about how to fix the problem of not having access to it in Lincoln Park. Imagine a wheel with a hub in the center and spokes coming from it connected to the big outside wheel. That is how we envision Lincoln Park’s local food economy: their social enterprise will be at its core, connected to the other businesses, organizations, schools, urban farms and other entities that are already doing the work of growing or educating or purchasing. Next, we had to think through what is truly needed in Lincoln Park. Is it a hub in a bricks-and-mortar building that aggregates product to be packed and sent out to markets like restaurants and anchor institutions and schools? Is it a commercial kitchen incubator where local businesses can plant their seeds and grow, creating jobs of their own? Is it a marketing campaign to educate the producers and the eaters? Is it a trucking and distribution system to get the food physically from one place to another? We held community convenings in Lincoln Park to discuss this regional system because we know that the participants in this system already have within them the wisdom and creativity to confront even the most difficult challenges.
What is truly needed is a regional economy where all the players are valued for what they contribute, where all the jobs they create at good wages are counted as part of the pie. It is a regional economy that is anchored by a social enterprise deeply rooted in its place—a neighborhood with residents, artists, businesses, churches, schools—that services itself and the greater city.
And in Albuquerque, through the Living Cities Innovation Central Integration Initiative project to create jobs and economic mobility through innovation and entrepreneurship for the city’s most underserved residents, we are looking at the same things. How do you help a local business owner best serve the needs of the community neighborhood she is based in while being connected to the greater city and its services? International neighborhoods, traditional neighborhoods, downtown urban neighborhoods all need the same thing, that is, to be places of community for their residents and business owners while thinking and being a part of a larger city and county and statewide economy.
Regional-local. It’s a new economic system mindset. It’s one that needs to be thought through, so that all neighborhoods are connected to each other, not competing for city, county, or state funds for this redevelopment or that revitalization project. What if we considered regionalism to be about the trade of goods and services within your neighborhood, your district, your city, your county, your state, your bioregion? If we grow the economic pie for a region, we’ll all do better because we’ll all do better.
Vicki Pozzebon is the owner of Prospera Partners, a consulting company practicing bold localism. Pozzebon is a BALLE Fellow and the author of the forthcoming book For the Love of Local: Confessions from the Heart of Community. Read her blog The Local Voice at www.prosperapartners.org and follow her on Twitter: @vickipozzebon