Herbie the Love Bug Rides Again! 'Local First’ movement revs up to rock—and save—our world
By Guest Commentator Patty Cantrell
Posted on July 18, 2008
It is 1974 in Springfield, Missouri, and they are still showing movies downtown at a theater on the city's Park Central Square. I am 10 years old, and my sister and I are thrilled to be out on that sweltering summer night with our very cool Aunt Robin and Uncle Romie. We're off to see Herbie the Love Bug Rides Again. The smash Disney hit is about a lovable, racing-striped Volkswagen Beetle who saves a little old lady and her historic home from the wrecking ball of "progress."
Bright colors, loud crashes, and daring escapes will make an impression on any kid. But it is the moral of Herbie's story—that people and place matter—that has kept the little VW zooming around my mind through the years. He roared in again just a few weeks ago when I sat down with some 500 hometown business leaders at the sixth national convening of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE).
The BALLE conference had both Herbie and me doing wheelies! I was thrilled to learn that so many people I met, representing many more folks back home, are starting a new kind of progress: rebuilding neighborhoods and local businesses in their own towns.
Like Herbie, they're coming to rescue us from the super-highway, super-center, super-consumer "progress" that costs us so much. Independent merchants, green builders, energy innovators, local food purveyors, and eco-friendly manufacturers are leading the charge. And as they create the change they want to see in their communities, more people are joining them—helped by the fact that the support structure underlying the "progress" that destroyed that little old lady's neighborhood is now tumbling down.
It's the hot story right now: rising energy prices, falling credit capacity, climate instability, big-company complicity from here to Hong Kong—it is status-quo-shattering stuff. But it's also old news. We've seen it coming, even if some believed our scientists and soldiers could stave it off.
But none of the "Local First" proponents were in Boston to say, "I told you so." Their message is much more positive: "Come on down and join the party! We have a lot of work to do, but it is fun, rewarding, and profitable work."
Just a few illustrative examples of BALLE members' recent work—and results:
- BALLE members are having a great time and a lot of success out in Bellingham, Washington, where the region's 'Local First' campaign is building serious awareness and sales through initiatives like its "Where the Locals Go" coupon book.
- Twelve thousand people showed up a couple weeks ago for local food, local bands, and local beer at West Michigan's fifth annual Local First street party.
- Out east, the Greater Philadelphia Sustainable Business Network—a founding BALLE chapter—is leading a broad-based effort to develop a comprehensive "green-collar jobs" plan for the city. It's all about employing local youth and supplying local businesses with the skilled workforce they need to seize opportunities in such areas as green home building, renewable energy installation, and urban farming.
Make no mistake, this is no sentimental yearning for a Main Street day gone by. BALLE embodies a fierce, hard-working devotion to people and place, and is leading the way to a new and nourishing economic reality. And it's on a roll, with more and more people now getting it... and demanding their communities take a similar approach.
Philly's Sustainable Business Network, for example, had to set up nine regional Web-cast locations for its first green-collar jobs forum after the 600-seat central location filled up. Two weeks later, the city council directed its economic development and environment committees to get to work on that comprehensive plan. BALLE entrepreneurs and local economic development organizers may have led the charge, but the city council and residents see the merits and have joined in the effort.
The new understanding stemming from localized economic development is that everyone Philadelphia needs to help the city move forward—indeed, everyone that every community needs to prosper—is already there, in those communities, with the experience and skills that can be tapped for collective gain. Our work is to recognize, welcome, and support each other, just like an organic farmer builds the strength of plants by cultivate the soil's web of life.
In the traditional economic development world, it is often easier to give another big-box store a tax break and pretend that gigantic parking lots are conducive to creating community and a sense of place. BALLE, however, is doing the deeper work of building a more connected, more robust economic life that takes advantage of local assets and builds stronger relationships along the way.
Local BALLE chapters invite people to think first of local bookstores or restaurants when they're out and about. The chapters also connect local businesses to other local businesses, which widens the web of local commerce. Plus they partner with chambers of commerce, local governments, and universities to find ways to keep sales and investments working for local folks, not distant speculators.
And, as the local economic web grows... who knows? New funding for local food and farms in the federal farm bill? Hey, wait, that actually happened this year, thanks in part to so many farm-to-school and related local food campaigns emerging across the country, such as the one I'm involved with in northwestern Michigan called Taste the Local Difference.
Herbie would be proud of BALLE's legacy of promoting a sense of place and improving our local economies. And next time my sister and I are in Springfield, we're going to the independent Moxie Cinema, down by Park Central Square—just another risk-taking, fun-loving business that is bringing local commerce and community back to the core of that city, and to this country.
Patty Cantrell is a writer and local economist, is a 2008-2009 Food and Society Policy Fellow. She also directs the local food- and farm-promoting Entrepreneurial Agriculture Project at the Michigan Land Use Institute.