Little more than six months after its inaugural meeting, the Northland Sustainable Business Alliance (NSBA) has grown to include more than 100 locally owned businesses located in and around the city of Duluth.
NSBA advocates a new approach to economic development that strengthens locally owned businesses while protecting and enhancing the region’s social and environmental assets. The group eschews the conventional growth-at-all-costs model of development. It contends that city policies and resources have focused too heavily on recruiting outside corporations—particularly big box retailers—at the expense of local businesses, the environment, and community well-being.
"That’s the whole basis of what our organization is, that labor and environment, business and the environment, don’t have to be opposed," says Louise Curnow, owner of The Green Mercantile and founding member of the alliance.
NSBA’s message has struck a chord with small business owners, according to Bill Brakken, an alliance co-founder and owner of the A.G. Thomson House Historic Bed & Breakfast Inn. About two dozen people attended the initial meeting in June and paid membership has grown steadily ever since. The group continues to field new inquiries each week.
"It’s only fair to thank the Chamber [of Commerce] for inspiring many of these calls," says Brakken. Part of the impetus for NSBA was a feeling among its founding members that the Duluth Chamber of Commerce does not represent the interests of locally owned businesses.
A case in point was the Chamber’s recent decision to install as its board chair the manager of the Sam’s Club outlet, a subsidiary of Wal-Mart. "This is the same group that lately has taken to wooing small businesses and decrying vacancy rates downtown," contends Brakken. "Now they’ve anointed a leader whose company, and others like it, is largely responsible for destroying both."
Commercial vacancies downtown now exceed an unprecedented 300,000 square feet. Not surprisingly, economic development has been a hot topic in Duluth this year. NSBA has taken advantage of every opportunity to bring its perspective into the discussion.
When Mayor Gary Doty announced the creation of a task force to address downtown vacancies and defended his administration’s policies by telling the local newspaper, "If you look at what’s happened in the past year, it was a result of corporate decisions made elsewhere, not here in Duluth," NSBA publicly questioned whether the community should have relinquished control of so much of its economy to outside forces in the first place.
The group pointed to the development of an Office Depot superstore downtown, which was championed by the mayor and made possible by about $450,000 in public investments and the displacement of several small businesses. Just seven months later Office Depot’s head office declared the store "under performing" and closed it.
When the mayor organized an Economic Summit this Fall, NSBA scheduled radio and television appearances and published newspaper commentaries during the event to highlight the group’s own vision for the region.
NSBA’s work began to yield dividends during the November city council election. Several candidates made small business creation a cornerstone of their campaigns and talked about the need to shift city resources away from luring outside firms and into sustainable, community-based development. "That’s a direct outgrowth of what our group’s been saying," says Brakken.
NSBA joined with 20 other community groups to co-sponsor a candidate forum that drew about 120 people, larger than any other political forum this year (the Chamber’s candidate event drew only 20 people).
Of the four city council candidates who were members of NSBA, two won seats, while the other two lost by very narrow margins.
Following the election, all four of the councilors-elect accepted an invitation from NSBA to share their thoughts on development at the group’s monthly meeting. The event was so successful that the NSBA organized a second meeting a few weeks later for the five sitting city councilors.
In addition to its public education and advocacy efforts, NSBA plans to pursue cooperative purchasing and marketing initiatives, publish a local business directory, and establish support services to help members grow their businesses and improve their environmental and social performance.