Thalassa Raasch is the ambassador for Portland Buy Local, an organization that encourages consumers to patronize locally owned businesses, rather than large national chains. On Wednesday the organization opened its first office, on Congress Street, reflecting its growth in less than eight years from 20 business members to more than 450.

Raasch grew up in Minnesota and came to Portland in 2012 to study at the Salt Institute. She started working with Portland Buy Local about a year ago and is its only paid employee.

Q: Did you frequent malls and chain stores growing up?

A: The Midwest is full of strip malls, and Minnesota has the Mall of America, but there’s an awareness of the counterpoint to all that.

Minneapolis has one of the highest concentrations of cooperatives, and while there’s great pride in the malls and department stores that originated in Minnesota, people there really love their farmers markets, their food cooperatives and their local artisans and craftsmen. That makes it a lot like Portland.

Q: Is Portland Buy Local able to tap into that attitude?

A: We’re experiencing tremendous growth. We started in 2006 with 20 members and we are at 455, and I’m hoping to push us to 500 by the end of the year.

We’re pushing to become much more present in the community.

Q: Are you absolutists? Do you believe that no one should shop at a chain store if there’s a local alternative?

A: One thing we try to do is create a really positive message, and we do acknowledge that everyone will shop at a bigger store sometimes. It’s part of our culture.

But we’re trying to shift the focus away from doing all your shopping there and recognizing the talent that’s in our own communities. We’ve already put out 20,000 printed directories (of local businesses) and made them available through our members and also at the ferry terminal and the airport.

Q: Do you find a more receptive audience among residents or visitors?

A: I actually think Portlanders are very aware of the buy-local movement, and our campaign has really spread the word. Portlanders are here because of what we are and there’s a lot of pride in that. Portlanders are really disposed to celebrating what we are.

It’s often about letting people know that there’s an opportunity to buy local, to do things like get insurance from a local broker or shift business to a local bank.

When I first moved here and looked through the directory, I discovered so much that I didn’t realize. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of showing people where those places are.

Q: Why is it so important to patronize local businesses?

A: The people running the local businesses, those are your neighbors; they have a stake in our community.

There’s a different awareness and sense of responsibility that’s built into the ownership. You’re also independent, so the owners have control over decision-making in their company.

It’s not just helping our local economy, it’s supporting our neighbors and friends and the people that keep this place great.

For every $100 spent at a locally owned business, $45 stays in the local economy, creating jobs and expanding the city’s tax base. For every $100 spent at a national chain or franchise store, only $14 remains in the community.

On a personal level, I’m working for Portland Buy Local because I’m passionate about this. I’m pretty young, I’m 27, and it’s all about setting an example that you can stay here and Maine will support your creativity and your entrepreneurial spirit.

It would be easy for me to buy everything at the same place, but when I buy local I see the owners and workers around all the time, and it’s incredible to see that kind of support system in place.

And timing-wise, this is super important in Maine right now. We’re getting a lot of national attention as a great place to live and work, and that’s attracting a lot of outside investment, but this is the time to reinforce our local economy and community.

Q: There’s a strong local component in the restaurant industry now, where people want the food they’re served to come from local farms. Is that approach, local sourcing, found in other businesses?

A: It’s absolutely the case! Nancy Lawrence of Portmanteau is sewing bags in the Old Port, and she supports the local artisans who show (their work) in her shop and is trying to find materials from local companies as much as she can.

When you run a small business, you know how hard it is to be a local business person, so you’re trying to support other local businesses as well. It goes back to the neighbors concept, encapsulating economics, supporting other artisans and local businesses. And local businesses are way more likely to put money back into nonprofits and local charities.

Q: Are there economic sectors where Portland Buy Local needs a stronger presence?

A: We’re always trying to be all-inclusive. If there’s a membership sector we’d like to see grow, we’d like to reach more lodging members.

We support the Mercury Inn as one of our members, and there are some amazing inns in Portland that offer a diversified take on the city.

We also just want to reach more people in our community. It involves educating individual citizens, as well as schools and our members about what other businesses are out there.

Then there’s group branding and promotion of our members and a third area of creating strong relationships with local businesses and the media.

Q: Other communities have buy-local campaigns, including neighboring South Portland. Do you work together on a regional approach?

A: We’ve talked about that as a grand vision for the future and we might want to partner with them, but right now, we’re focusing on serving our members first.

That’s our priority for the next few years and as for where we go in the longer term, we’re excited about the idea of reaching out to people who do the same work we do in Maine.

Q: Do you ever shop at Walmart or Target?

A: It’s been a while, but I do sometimes buy cat food at Target.

But I have shifted my spending significantly just by learning more about what exists here, and if everyone was doing that, what a difference that would make for Portland our local economy and community.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]