Vote with your dollars for local businesses in 2020

Real Impact


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With nonstop political commentary and discussion of the 2020 election swirling around us, it's understandable to feel like tuning it all out, because after all, the election is nearly a year away and it's easy to feel powerless when it comes to national politics.

That's where local comes into play.

There is a very real opportunity to impact results and change the story at the local level. This year, Charleston City Council's District 3 seat was won in a run-off election by 24 votes. The margins in local elections are slim, meaning your vote has a pretty darn significant impact.

And, you don't have to wait for November 2020 to cast your vote. Each and every day, we have the ability to change the story.

When you buy a Thanksgiving turkey from Ted's Butcherblock downtown, you've "voted" for small business owner Ted Dombrowski to continue to provide a fantastic neighborhood butcher shop and good jobs for his employees.

When you purchase "world famous Charleston Chewies" for your holiday party from Daddy's Girls Bakery in North Charleston, you've "voted" for owners Nate and Chastity Brown and a minority-owned business working to build a legacy for their five children in the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood.

When you buy the hottest toy of the season for your niece at Wonder Works Toys, you've "voted" for owner Christine Osborne to continue to operate four toy store locations around the Lowcountry and delight children with Wonder Works' unique shopping experience.

When you purchase a chair from a vendor at The Station in Park Circle, you've "voted" for the collective power that local businesses have when they come together to create a space to sell their goods, share overhead costs, and the reality that collaboration beats competition every time.

If how we spend money indicates what we value — what does your online bank statement say about your values? With a background in city planning, I have a particular interest in how every dollar we spend shapes our city. If I buy Christmas gifts from Amazon, I am voting for more Amazon warehouses and those ubiquitous vans in my community. If I buy Christmas gifts from local shops, I'm voting for more small neighborhood-serving shops. Yes, this is a very simplified take on capitalism, but the collective buying power is real.

While we must all take part in the free market process of voting for what we love, we can't entirely buy our way to building the communities we want. Smart — and bold — public policy must play a role too. That's why Lowcountry Local First goes beyond our splashy, loud public awareness campaigns on the benefits of buying local — we work with communities to pass policies that create the economy, culture, and character unique to the Lowcountry.

The forces working to capitalize on Charleston's immense popularity and grab a piece of the pie are fierce. The result is outside investment pouring into the city in the shape and form of buildings that truly embody 'Anywhere, U.S.A.' I think we all feel a collective "bummer" when we see these generic buildings popping up with chain businesses anchoring first floor retail space.

Here's the good news: We can actually do something about that. And two local island communities — Sullivan's Island and Folly Beach — already have. (The island communities continue to lead on policy innovation, too — kudos!)

"Formula Business" zoning is a regulatory tool that communities across the country have enacted (more than 30 locations at our count) to prohibit or set a higher bar of entry for chain businesses within certain business districts — particularly those at a neighborhood scale. The great thing is that each community can customize the policy to suit their needs. In 2018, we were thrilled to work with city officials, residents, and local businesses on Folly Beach to pass a Formula Business prohibition in the island's central business area that helps forever ensure a central tenet in Folly's official comprehensive plan — to keep Folly funky.

Special zoning districts regulating chain businesses are a proven, legal, and cost-neutral way for communities to ensure economic and aesthetic diversity. Considering the comments I'll inevitably receive about property rights, I'll reiterate that regulating formula businesses is established in dozens of communities, large and small. Any kind of zoning rule impinges on private property, and this is no different. But zoning is also the reason that private property holds value; the fact that my neighbors are constrained in certain ways is what protects the overall value of the community and the value of my property. Additionally, much like we regulate paint colors in the historic district, these policies regulate standardized features and number of outlets, not ownership.

I'm not delusional, I know you can't buy every single thing locally and that the convenience of online shopping is enticing. But I'm betting you'll cringe when you see yet another chain taking over a prime location downtown, and maybe your heart sinks a little when you read a long-time Charleston business is shuttering.

So, here are a few suggested resolutions for the new year: Think local first; open your wallet as a citizen, not just a consumer; invest in the small business owners, because they return the investment; and ask your local elected officials what they are doing to shape your community in a better way. Vote in November 2020 and every day until then.

Lauren Gellatly is the director of operations for Lowcountry Local First.

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