Austin's independent 'iconic' businesses hope we'll all put them on our list
"Think independently. Shop locally owned."
That's the motto of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, an especially timely message this holiday season. The local indie-biz group works to raise awareness of the value economic, cultural, and keepin'-it-weird of patronizing stores, restaurants, and companies that are locally owned and independent. After building steam since 2002, the grassroots AIBA now finds itself aligned with a broader zeitgeist around town. With heated public debate this month over a proposed big-box ordinance and a Wal-Mart on steroids for Northcross Mall and with the community searching for solutions to protect beloved "iconic" businesses like Las Manitas (whose existing lease runs out Dec. 31), AIBA's advocacy and message fit right in.
The 350-member group an affiliate of the American Independent Business Alliance advocates not only for the interests of its member businesses but also for their value to the community at large. Supporting Austin's unique homegrowns preserves the city's special character, says AIBA; by contrast, patronizing only national chains and big-box megaretailers contributes to a slide toward Anywhere, USA.
Especially as we shop-till-we-drop and eat-drink-be-merry this December, Austin's indie-biz alliance encourages us to spend our dollars locally. "If each household in Travis County simply redirected just $100 of planned holiday spending from chain stores to locally owned merchants, the local economic impact would reach approximately $10 million," notes the nonprofit's Web site (www.ibuyaustin.com). Economic activism or "voting with your dollars" is indeed particularly powerful this time of year; national statistics show that for retailers, the holiday season brings in up to 40% of annual sales and 75% of yearly profits. AIBA sings the praises of keeping those sales and profits in our local economy, a message that appeals just as much to Austin's business set as to hippie-dippie progressives.
An economic impact analysis co-sponsored by AIBA and Liveable City (an activist group specializing in quality-of-life issues) in 2002 showed that "for every $100 in customer spending at Borders, the total local economic impact is only $13. The same amount spent with a local merchant yields $45, more than three times the local economic impact." That's because the revenues of Austin-owned business owners are disproportionately spent, in turn, on local salaries, suppliers, and purchases. AIBA hopes that if they keep Austin both economically robust and hip-n-cool, we'll make the effort to do at least some of our holiday shopping at BookPeople (not Amazon), Toy Joy (not Toys "R" Us), and stash visiting relatives at the Austin Motel, not the Marriott.
AIBA's "Shop Locally Owned" position would appear to have widespread support; in a 2004 opinion poll (also conducted by Liveable City), for example, 71% of Austinites said the City Council should do more to promote the interests of local businesses over those of national big-box chains. A new big-box ordinance requiring a public hearing and advance notification before a megaretailer can invade a neighborhood is scheduled for a final public hearing and vote at City Council on Dec. 14. As if on cue, a 24-hour Wal-Mart has been announced as the anchor store for a redeveloped Northcross Mall, stirring up the wrath of neighborhood groups (who claim they were not properly notified or consulted) and even Council Member Brewster McCracken (see p.19). Opponents, organized as Responsible Growth for Northcross, list among their objections Wal-Mart's well-documented track record of driving locally owned stores out of business. The surrounding Anderson Lane and Burnet Road area is home to many small, locally owned businesses, which sensibly fear for their survival if the announced 24-hour gargantuan Wal-Mart (which at 219,629 square feet would be much larger than Cabela's and second in size only to IKEA regionally) invades the neighborhood.
A primary reason that Austin's independents have banded together as AIBA is to hold competitive ground against such megaretailers and chains, which are backed by powerful national marketing operations and corporate deep pockets not to mention city tax breaks and financial incentives luring them to town. One need, for example, is to have equal opportunities to open shop (or add a new location) in Austin's major new retail and mixed-use developments. Toward this end, AIBA has initiated an annual May trade show dubbed CLIC (Connecting and Linking Independents With Commercial Developments) to provide matchmaking for local entrepreneurs with developers, commercial brokers, and lenders. Not only does CLIC help the independents, it also helps strip centers and malls in the sprawling burbs get an infusion of Austin character. For example, a CLIC sponsor, locally owned Endeavor Real Estate Group, points to success in getting Waterloo Ice House, Austin Java, and Amy's Ice Creams into Southpark Meadows, a new complex rising at I-35 and Slaughter.
AIBA's CLIC program is synergistic with city of Austin efforts to include local businesses in new urban developments in which it has a stake. For the city-subsidized Second Street retail district, the city's agreement with AMLI Austin Retail set a goal that at least 30% of tenants would be locals; according to the city, more than 80% of the signed leases in the two blocks that have been built out are with local businesses. At the city-subsidized Domain in North Austin, the city required Simon Property Group to allocate a $1 million fund to assist small local businesses in locating at the mixed-use development; that assistance can include rent subsidies, loans, marketing, and interior finish-out. At Mueller, the city has required Catellus to include at least 30% locally owned businesses in Mueller Town Center specifying a preference for those that "reflect the nature and character of Austin through décor, merchandise and cuisine." Even City Hall is getting into the spirit, opening an on-site Austin City Store this month to sell the goods of local artists and artisans. (If that's you, call 974-7852.)
AIBA also has begun working cooperatively with the city's Small Business Development Program (www.cityofaustin.org/sbdp), an initiative of the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office. SBDP regularly talks to AIBA members about the office's free support services, such as assistance with business plans, finding capital, commercial loan submissions, and government procurement. Early next year, SBDP will expand its Development Information Resources Services to help small locals (who generally can't afford high-dollar real estate attorneys) through the confusing maze of city processes related to permitting, zoning, parking, and other commercial property issues.
"AIBA is high-energy; they plan well, they execute well, and they collaborate well," said SBDP's Rosy Jalifi. "Our missions dovetail and support one another."
A first co-initiative is city funding (through SBDP) for new streetscape banners identifying Independent Business Investment Zone districts. The AIBA program designates neighborhood business districts with a cluster of locally owned businesses offering unique goods and services; the city-sponsored banners feature the AIBA logo and announce "Local Spoken Here." Already fluttering in the Guadalupe IBIZ (between 29th and 32nd), the banners will go up by March in the three other IBIZ districts organized to date: North Loop Strip, East End, and South Lamar. Each IBIZ district also will have a brochure listing its indie-biz participants. More districts are planned.
"The city has been very supportive of the program," said AIBA's Melissa Mill
er. "And they appreciate having AIBA as a liaison to independent local businesses, to facilitate communication and understanding of their needs."
Beyond marketing support, how else might the city give local businesses within IBIZ districts a helping hand? That's where an interesting dialogue has emerged out of the Iconic Preservation notion forwarded by Planning Commission Chair Dave Sullivan. (See "Developing Stories: Austin Iconography," Nov. 3). Sparked by the epic struggle between Downtown's Las Manitas Avenue Cafe and Escuelita del Alma child-care center, which are losing their leases, and the multihotel Marriott complex muscling them out of the way, Sullivan's informal proposal suggested a city ordinance to offer special assistance and protection to a handful of superspecial "iconic businesses." But as Sullivan tested the idea with various groups around town this fall, it evolved into the concept of a broader city program one that would provide supportive assistance not just to the iconic few but to a breadth of independent, locally owned businesses.
Sullivan is meeting this week with interested parties, including AIBA, to discuss how the Iconic Preservation concept might merge with the IBIZ District program. By benefit of his long tenure on the Planning Commission, Sullivan was able to assemble a pragmatic list of creative ways in which the city could help its iconic independents. (This could serve to level the playing field with chain locations that already receive other forms of city incentives.) Still in the early-draft stage, Sullivan's list includes programs similar to those already offered by SBDP, such as assistance with financing, information technology, and advertising. Other ideas potentially offer a natural fit with streetscape and building needs within IBIZ districts. These could include:
Streetscape upgrades, ã la the city's Great Streets program
Assistance with sidewalk repair, flood prevention, graffiti removal
Higher priority for repairs to city infrastructure (e.g., potholes)
Parking requirements assistance
Permitting, zoning, and other development assistance
Post-disaster reconstruction assistance
Possible tax breaks (such as those for historic preservation)
Matchmaking with developers who need to earn a density bonus
The Zones & Ordinances subcommittee of the Planning Commission is expected to take up the matter in January.
One community group bullish on Iconic Preservation, and now discussing that idea in the context of IBIZ districts, is the Heritage Society of Austin. "We're excited about participating in this deal we're interested in any way to preserve what is cool about Austin," said HSA President-elect John Donisi. With its broadening mission "to promote the recognition and experience of Austin's diverse cultural heritage," the Heritage Society sees opportunities to encourage adaptive reuse (rather than teardown) of older commercial buildings in IBIZ districts that have lineage and character. Notes Donisi, "Adaptive reuse tends to be done by locals, not chains."
"It's great that the desire to help independents is there," notes AIBA's Miller. Where it's all going, no one yet knows. For now, as shoppers head out gift-shopping and dining this December, AIBA just hopes they'll be intentional in choosing the most satisfying shopping experience and the future for Austin they want to support.
A directory of AIBA members searchable by type of business or business name is available online at www.ibuyaustin.com/aiba-member-directory.php. A print version of the directory can be picked up at member businesses, such as Waterloo Records and BookPeople.