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Herbie the Love Bug Rides Again!

‘Local first’ movement revs up to rock—and save—our world

June 26, 2008 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Twelve thousand people showed up in Grand Rapids a couple weeks ago for local food, bands, and beer at West Michigan’s fifth annual Local First Street Party.

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’s 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).

And Herbie was doing wheelies! Like me, he was thrilled that so many people there, representing so many folks back home, are starting a new kind of progress that doesn’t need quote marks around it: rebuilding neighborhoods 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 make the change they want to see, more people are joining them—helped by the fact that the props supporting the "progress" that destroyed that little old lady’s neighborhood are 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’s status-quo-shattering stuff. But it’s also old news. We’ve seen it coming, even if some thought our scientists and soldiers could stave it off.

But none of the "local first-ers" were in Boston to say, "I told you so." Their message is way more positive: "Come on down and join the party! We have a lot of work to do, but it’s fun, rewarding, and profitable work."

For example, way out West, BALLE members are having a great time and a lot of success in Bellingham, Wash., where the region’s "Local First" campaign is building serious awareness and sales through initiatives like its "Where the Locals Go" coupon book.

Out East, the Greater Philadelphia Sustainable Business Network, a founding BALLE member, 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.

And, much closer to home, 12,000 people showed up a couple weeks ago for local food, bands, and beer at West Michigan’s fifth annual Local First street party.

This is no sentimental yearning for a Main Street day gone by. This is fierce, hard-working love for people and place leading the way to a new and nourishing economic understanding. And it’s on a roll, with more and more people now getting it…and demanding it.

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.

The new understanding is that everyone Philadelphia needs to help it move forward—indeed, everyone every community needs—is already here. Their work is to recognize, welcome, and support each other, just like an organic farmer builds the strength of plants by using how nature actually works to cultivate the soil’s web of life.

It’s easier in the traditional economic development world to give another big-box store another tax break and pretend that gigantic parking lots are conducive to neighborliness. BALLE, however, is doing the deeper work of building a more connected, more robust economic life.

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 Lower Michigan, called Taste the Local Difference.

This is so exciting it has Herbie and me doing wheelies! And next time we’re 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 founded and directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s local food- and farm-promoting Entrepreneurial Agriculture Project. A veteran journalist and local economist, Patty is also a 2008-2009 Food and Society Policy Fellow. Reach her at pattyc@mlui.org.

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