Choose Austin First

Oddly enough, Austin has two different indie-biz groups – both started in 2002, with the same basic goals and mission. The smaller group, with just more than 100 members, is Choose Austin First. Also an alliance of locally owned, Austin-based businesses, it differs from AIBA chiefly in that it eschews a public activist or advocacy role. Its leadership also shuns city or other governmental programs in trying to help local businesses. Instead, Choose Austin First promotes low-key member-to-member networking, mutual support and patronage. According to member Megan Poore, the group's central mission is to "let consumers know which companies are local."

Like AIBA, CAF encourages us to do business with Austin-owned stores, restaurants, and other companies as a way of preserving unique local character. Although CAF has no paid staff, and thus more minimal programs than AIBA, its consciousness-raising efforts include similar media outreach, lease-space initiatives, public events, networking events for members, and cooperative programs for marketing and advertising. Both groups even have cute animal logos. (While AIBA is personified by a hip armadillo in shades, CAF has a doggie with the slogan "Do Your Business Here." Hmm … explain to us again the marketing zing of being associated in people's minds with dog you-know-what?)

Another difference is that the nonprofit AIBA utilizes membership dues ($175/year) to pay staff and execute programs. Choose Austin First membership dues ($120/year) are primarily used as a fund for community charitable giving.

The obvious question: Why haven't the two groups joined forces? After all, the chief benefit of having a "little-guy" business association is to better compete against big-behemoth national companies. United we stand, and all that. Wouldn't Austin indies be even more powerful as a single coalition?

Apparently, political differences have been the stumbling block. While neither group is overtly political, AIBA hews to a more true-blue liberal world-view, whereas Choose Austin First started from a more conservative, even Libertarian sensibility. In its early days, AIBA had a more radical, protest-oriented tone; that apparently didn't sit well with the CAF founders, who included the owners of Amy's Ice Creams, Mangia Pizza, and Pok-e-Jo's. "We have tried to come together, but they want to do their own thing," said Miller. Although they share some members, the two alliances have not worked collaboratively, and they admit to a certain initial competitiveness.

"I think at some point maybe we will merge the groups," says Steve Simmons, a CAF founder and the crema grande of Amy's Ice Creams. "I'd like nothing more than for them to handle all of our members' networking," said AIBA's Melissa Miller. But neither has gotten down on bended knee to make a proposal.

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