After hearing that two more local institutions were closing, one of Portland Buy Local’s board members suggested to me that we ought to have an “In Memoriam” video at our upcoming Indie Biz Awards to honor the local businesses that have recently closed.

This summer, we said goodbye to Silly’s, Brian Boru, Walter’s, Vignola/Cinque Terre, Local Sprouts and Lolita. As a friend of mine put it, those first four restaurants alone represent well over 100 years of business history in Portland.

Despite (and sometimes because of) the growing popularity of our city, many local businesses are hurting. Some are closing, and many more are being forced out of Portland. To some extent, we know this is natural.

But it would be disingenuous to argue that all of these closings are just the natural order of things. Even new residents recognize that change is afoot. For those who have been here for decades, it can be sad to say goodbye to the scrappy seaside town we once were.

Thanks to organizations like ours across the country, the value and importance of local businesses is now common knowledge. But it has become clear that the buy local movement needs to do more than educate consumers.

We were delighted to read Greg Kesich’s column on Sept. 8 referencing our friends at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and imploring community members to think of themselves as more than consumers – to think of themselves as citizens.

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If we truly believe in the ethos of “buy local,” citizens need to push city government to help local businesses compete with the huge structural advantages given to big corporations.

During this period of change, citizens of Portland have an incredible opportunity to shape the future of our city. By channeling the excitement about Portland into smart growth, we can maintain our sense of place and institutionalize our values of independence, authenticity and entrepreneurialism. Local zoning and tax policy are two key areas that have an outsized impact on local businesses.

Portland is updating its zoning code (ReCode Portland), and while it may seem dry, it’s actually critically important. Without strong consideration for local businesses in zoning regulations, we risk morphing into a gleaming copy of other small cities around the country – with no connection to our unique sense of place other than nice views. Portland Buy Local is preparing a report to begin a community conversation on zoning changes to support local businesses.

As the city grows, Portland must also resist the temptation to offer special tax treatment to large, out-of-state businesses. Many cities are accustomed to handing over tax incentives to lure big businesses into town rather than committing those tax incentives to growing local, community-based businesses. Two years ago, Amazon demanded that cities enter a bidding war to see who could give the trillion-dollar business the most tax breaks. While Amazon offered up the promise of jobs and investment, these benefits are often outweighed by the costs, including the additional strain on local infrastructure.

According to a 2018 report by economist Tim Bartik, these traditional tax incentives actually lead to a reduction in education spending, and eventually, lower incomes overall. By contrast, the report found that targeted investment in locally owned businesses leads to higher per capita income, particularly for low-wage workers.

We don’t have to choose between economic growth and support of independent local businesses. It’s an election year, Portland. Get a City Council who can do both. It’s critical that small cities like ours take a stand to support local businesses in the face of international corporate consolidation.

Portland Buy Local is excited to continue our mission of keeping Portland a unique, independent city with a thriving local business community. As more money flows into our city, that work becomes harder. You can join Portland Buy Local as an individual (citizen!) member to help ensure that Portland retains its sense of place, and remains a city where local entrepreneurs can start and grow a diverse range of businesses.


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