Chamber initiative created to harness the power of local buying
WILLMAR -- They can't buy their diamonds in Kandiyohi County, but Elmquist Jewelers keeps most of its other business as local as it can.
"We've always tried to buy local," said owner Mike Noonan. "All of our office supplies and printing we keep local."
The jewelry retailer is among 91 businesses in Kandiyohi County that signed pledges this past year to make at least 5 percent of their purchases with their hometown peers.
All told, this represents about $1.2 million worth of business to the local economy.
The campaign by the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce was launched one year ago to help capture some of the $840 million that local businesses are estimated to spend each year outside the county.
"Whether you have a poor economy or a growing economy, it's important," said Clark Vollan, chairman of the Chamber of Commerce board of directors and a member of the Buy Into the Lakes Area steering committee that oversaw the start of the initiative last year.
An analysis, using several regional indicators collected by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, found that as much as $3.2 million a day was leaving the county in the form of goods and services purchased elsewhere.
Some of this is inevitable, particularly for specialized products and services that simply aren't available locally. But the steering committee found that money also is slipping away for things that could be provided by a local business -- for instance, accounting, banking, insurance services, office supplies, computer and data processing services, advertising, and corporate credit cards.
The group calculated that if 5 percent of what's being spent outside the county could be retained locally, it would result in a $42 million annual gain to Kandiyohi County's economy.
"When you multiply that by how many times it turns over within the community, it makes an impact," Vollan said.
Selling this message has been taking time, however.
So far, just under 10 percent of the 1,100 or so businesses in Kandiyohi County have signed the 5 percent pledge, Vollan said.
"Awareness is the word. It's slowly happening but it doesn't happen overnight," he said.
"There's a tremendous amount of room for improvement," agreed Steve Wright, who helped spearhead the campaign as the 2008 chairman of the Chamber of Commerce board.
For most of the businesses who have joined the initiative, switching their banking and credit card services and office supply purchases to local businesses was one of the first steps, Wright said.
"That was the easiest thing to do," he said.
Many, such as the Willmar School District, have tried to take it even farther.
"We've looked at everything from heating and air conditioning to local construction contractors," said Pam Harrington, finance director for the school district. "We've looked at office supplies and copy machines."
Wright, who manages West Side Liquor, said he seeks out local businesses for services such as plumbing or carpet cleaning.
"I'm walking the walk as well within my organization," he said. "Every little thing that I can do, I do."
Noonan said the initiative helped make him more aware of his store's buying practices.
"With the way the economy is, we need to help each other out," he said.
Buying locally is one of the ways the Willmar School District can show support for the community, Harrington said.
"We already had a fair amount of our purchases going locally to the Willmar community," she said. "The community has been a great supporter of the schools. It goes both ways. The community is very important."
It's the goal of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber to increase the number of businesses this year who take the 5 percent pledge, Vollan said.
He said the chamber also is looking at ways to re-energize the campaign, noting that in the past year at least six other Minnesota communities have adopted similar initiatives to capture more local spending.
Even if businesses already make 5 percent of their purchases locally, it's important for them to officially sign on, Wright said.
"Obviously there's power in numbers. That's all part of retaining and measuring the success of the program," he said. "If there was ever a time this needed to happen, it's now."