People make their way past local businesses July 12 along Congress Street in Portland. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Portland Buy Local was established in 2006 to promote locally owned businesses to customers, in the face of competition from national chains and big-box stores.

Thirteen years later, the organization is maturing into an advocate for issues and policies important to the city’s independent businesses.

Nomads, on Commercial Street in Portland, has struggled with parking, affordable leases and competition from national retailers, according to owner Kelly Fernald. Courtesy Kelly Fernald

“We are developing a deeper understanding of the importance of us, as a membership organization, to be a relevant voice in the conversation about the city of Portland’s rapid development,” Portland Buy Local Vice President Kelly Fernald said. “We want city councilors and policymakers to consider (Portland Buy Local) a voice and advocate for the approximately 400 locally owned, independent businesses we represent.”

Portland Buy Local officially took a neutral position on two hot-button issues that came before the City Council in recent years: minimum wage and paid sick leave. But Fernald said it plans to be more involved in local politics.

“We know that local, independent businesses have shaped our city into the unique place it is today, and now the growth they have helped to create is displacing them, especially in the Old Port,” said Fernald, who owns Nomads, a clothing store at 100 Commercial St..

Executive Director Mary Alice Scott said aside from advocating on issues in the city, Portland Buy Local also intends to provide feedback to the city’s Ad Hoc ReCode Committee, which has been tasked with providing policy guidance to the Planning Board on a rewrite of the land use chapter of the city codes.

“The city of Portland is undergoing a complete review of its zoning and planning codes. That is a really great opportunity to institute the values we have as a community in terms of local businesses,” Scott said.

Portland Buy Local announced its intention of taking a greater advocacy role at the organization’s annual meeting last week at the Portland Museum of Art, where some of the issues local businesses are facing were discussed.

Portland Buy Local members listen during the organization’s annual meeting at the Portland Museum of Art. The event focused on the challenges of operating a local business and the future of the Buy Local movement. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Jenna Klein Jonsson, a partner at Blaze Partners, said an issue with parking caused her consulting and advertising firm to move from Danforth Street in Portland to Lafayette Street in Yarmouth.

She said Blaze Partners needed more space, searched vacancies, but couldn’t find the right fit in Portland. That, coupled with the cost of parking for her employees and lack of available parking for her clients, forced the advertising and consulting business to “reluctantly” move to Lower Falls Landing in Yarmouth, she said.

“It is something Portland is really going to have to deal with,” Jonsson said of parking across the city.

John Naylor, co-founder and owner of Rosemont Market, said while parking was an issue near his Commercial Street store, the rising cost of rent was the reason that location was closed last year. Naylor said the business operated under a $16 per-square-foot lease, but when the building sold, that rent more than doubled to $35 per square foot.

Fernald said she, too, has faced many of the same issues other local businesses have: a costly lease “that makes it nearly untenable for independent retailers to move into available spaces” in the city, competition from national retailers moving into the Old Port, and availability of parking.

While Fernald has been able to avoid the challenge other retailers have had in terms of staffing their businesses, she said she has struggled with competition from online, direct-to-consumer vendors of the products she carries in her store.

At the annual meeting of Portland Buy Local last week, Executive Director Mary Alice Scott, right, asks panelists about the challenges they face operating local businesses in the city. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

“When I first began as an outdoor gear and clothing retailer almost 24 years ago, I never would have guessed that my biggest competitor would be the businesses whose product it is I am trying to sell,” she said.

City Manager Jon Jennings said because “parking is a challenge for everyone,” the city is always willing to work with local businesses and is in the midst of redesigning Commercial Street to allow for better pedestrian safety and traffic flow.

Despite the fact the city has no discretion regarding the cost of commercial rent or leases, he sees local government “as a partner with the private sector and local businesses.”

“We have a special situation in Portland right now,” Jennings said. “We are highly valued. We have very great restaurants and businesses and people are moving into downtown. We have to be careful from a regulatory standpoint that things around the city work for everyone.”