Alliances of the Little Guys


Jeff Milchen, who helped organize independent businesses in Boulder, Colo., speaks at Koinonia Coffee House on Nov. 19.

Jeff Milchen doesn't like big boxes. In 1997, Milchen noticed with alarm that large chain stores were rapidly displacing the locally owned, independent stores that gave Boulder, Colo., its character. He teamed up with David Bolduc, a local bookstore owner, and the two created an alliance of local businesses.

In 1998, the two founded the American Independent Business Alliance to help other communities establish their own independent business alliance (IBA), organize "buy local" campaigns and advocate for policies that protect local businesses.

Friday, Nov. 19, Milchen will speak at Koinonia Coffee House's Friday Forum, a free event starting at 9 a.m.

A lot of people know now that spending money at locally owned businesses benefits the local economy far more than buying from chains. What are some of the less obvious benefits of buying local?
Creating jobs in the community is a huge piece of it. The thing that enables many of these larger corporate chains to have lower costs is efficiency. It's sound business for them to have just one room full of graphic designers, one room full of lawyers and one room full of accountants to serve hundreds or thousands of outlets around the planet, but it's terrible for the communities in which they operate. Those are the higher-skilled, higher-paying positions that also have the potential for people gaining skills that will allow them to start businesses of their own. So what's left in the community are usually the lower-paid, lower-skilled positions.

What does an IBA do?
The single most important ability is to create a strong collective brand that can give independent businesses the kind of community-wide recognition it's difficult for them to achieve individually. People are always inclined to go to someplace they know they can find what they need or are looking for. ... That's part of the success of chains. ... Even if they don't know your restaurant or your print shop, if they've come to recognize that the collective brand for the "Jackson Independent Business Alliance" stands for a high-quality, locally owned business, that can make it an easier choice for them to go to a new place they might not know directly.

Jackson has suffered from a lot of disinvestment. How should residents of an area that might lack retail options of any kind—that might be praying for a Walmart—look at independent business?
It's easy to get trapped in this idea of a false set of choices—that if you want to have basic household goods available inexpensively in your downtown, then you need to have a JCPenney or what have you. By creating the culture of support for independent business, you get more and more people thinking, "Maybe it's not so crazy that our town could have an independent local store that provides for our basic needs." Or maybe even, "We can do it ourselves."

Something that's actually becoming a trend out here in the Rocky Mountain west is smaller communities starting up their own community-owned stores. In fact, right over the pass from where were are in Bozeman (Mont.), a town called Livingston has the Livingston Mercantile in the heart of downtown, where you can find all the basic clothing and house-ware items you could need, at a store that's 100 percent owned and operated by the residents of the community.

The IBA calls itself the only "uncompromised" organization of its type. Explain.
While everybody has chambers of commerce and downtown organizations and other business groups, without an organization that's limited to locally owned and independent businesses, you're never going to have a voice that can stand up for their interests. Even in a place where the chamber of commerce could be 90 percent local businesses, just having a handful of absentee-owned businesses, or chains or developers whose clients are chains, is going to make it very difficult for them to take a position that says local, independent ownership is preferable to absentee or corporate ownership.

Boulder's a hippie town. Wasn't it a cinch to start AMIBA in a place already opposed to large corporations?
It's definitely a liberal town, but it also is one of the most transient communities in the U.S. That tendency, when you're in a new place, to go to the familiar, corporate brand names—that's huge. Boulder, because it has 30,000 students at the University of Colorado ... created a lot of challenges. But for anyone who thinks Boulder is a special case, I would just tell them to look at the map now, with 70 communities around the country (with IBAs). The model has proved itself successful in communities of pretty much any size, ideology or circumstance you can imagine.

Is it possible that Jackson's lack of transient population could be an asset?
It absolutely is an advantage. If you don't have a memory of what a community was like a decade ago ... you're not going to care as much. The fact that people in Jackson ... probably have a little more longevity and stability in the community—those community roots are definitely an advantage.

Note: JFP and BOOM Jackson publisher Todd Stauffer arranged for Jeff Milchen's appearance.


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