By Mary Alice Scott
For many years, the Buy Local movement has focused its efforts on communicating the value of local businesses to individual towns and states. Collectively, organizations like Portland Buy Local have worked to change perceptions and prioritize local, independent businesses across the country. Especially, we have tended to work on connecting consumers to local businesses and to encourage shopping local whenever possible.
But the coronavirus pandemic has shown us the shortfalls of viewing “buy local” as primarily a marketing campaign. Across the country, people immediately and organically responded to the closing of local businesses. They moved to support them through gift card purchases and other means. Unfortunately, that form of community support just can’t equate to a full month of sales, let alone two months.
Maine is an entrepreneurial state, well-populated with small, local businesses; that’s great news for our economy in general. Places with more local businesses have higher levels of civic engagement, a stronger middle class, and tend to be more economically resilient. But this pandemic has strengthened the largest and further disadvantaged the small, local businesses that make our communities vibrant.
Buy Local Advocacy Efforts
Portland Buy Local quickly began to advocate for grants to buoy local businesses while they remained shuttered. And for a moment we thought that Congress had developed a plan that would work. Unfortunately, the CARES Act and its Paycheck Protection Program were severely underfunded. This lead to restrictions on the terms and the funding.
These restrictions ended up favoring businesses who remained open and operating. But what about the small businesses who have been most impacted by the pandemic? On top of that, small businesses were forced to compete for the funding with large chain hotels and franchise restaurants. Some of whom already had millions in the bank.
The outlook for many local businesses is bleak right now. I just found out yesterday that one of my favorite local businesses is closing permanently. We still have the opportunity to help other local businesses make it through this crisis. To do so, we will depend on policy and support from every level of government. Buying a few gift cards certainly won’t hurt, either.
Mary Alice Scott is Portland Buy Local Executive Director. Discloser: Publisher Tony Zeli is president of the board of directors and a media partner.