Hanging out & hanging on in Uptown


Members of the Metro Independent Business Alliance (Metro IBA) meet periodically to “network,” commiserate, compare notes and talk about ways to support each other and cope with the severe recession.

“How are you holding out?” seems to be a standard question as these independent Twin Cities business people greet each other.

“Hanging on,” seems to be the general response.

In these times, that probably falls under the heading of “good news.” There isn’t a lot of that going around. But at a recent meeting with Metro IBA members at Magers and Quinn Booksellers in Uptown Minneapolis, a most unscientific conclusion was reached:

Minnesota and America are facing three economic crises all at once – not one.

At the core, there is a financial crisis that endangers America’s financial institutions and dries up credit markets and threatens savings and investments. Secondly, there is a collapse of American industry that has been partly nudged over the cliff by the financial crisis and also by investor penchant to ship jobs overseas. Finally, there is the loss of consumer confidence – in their workplace, in their financial institutions, and in their future.

Merchants and manufacturers along Minneapolis’ Lake Street or St. Paul’s Grand Avenue can do little to cope with the first two sets of major, external influences, notes Kirk Gryder, vice president of First National Bank of the Lakes in Uptown. But oddly enough, he said, local business people actually have some strengths working with consumer confidence in their own locale.

“They can have patience and work out problems with customers when large corporations responding to investors can’t, even when a local manager might want to,” Gryder said.

That became evident as Metro IBA members talked about their current business climate.

A South Minneapolis independent hardware store owner talked about helping local customers patch home problems when they aren’t bringing in remodelers or going to “big box” stores to nickel and dime big supply purchases.

David Unowsky, of Magers and Quinn, said he thought it is helpful to have used books on hand for customers as he rang up a sale of a used Henning Mankell book published in England, Chronicler of the Winds, and a new Jimmy Carter book, We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land, at the end of the breakfast.

But it was Suzanne Weinstein, a board member of Metro IBA, who probably gave the most descriptive assessment of the local economy. Her retail sales at Coastal Seafoods in South Minneapolis are holding up “reasonably” well, she said. Her restaurant supply customers, however, are showing signs of stress and are becoming slower in payment. One has filed for bankruptcy.

None of this is surprising to banker Gryder who specializes in working with small, independent businesses. It’s a matter of “mutual interests,” not next quarter’s bottom line, he said. “That works in favor of the independent business,” he said.

That is a strength that is in keeping with Metro IBA’s goals and the mutual interests of its independent entrepreneurs. The stated goals are to promote local independents, to educate consumers on the value of shopping at locals, and to improve conditions for local independents by influencing public policy.

The three goals are pragmatic. The general public is awash in dire economic news these days and has difficulty separating the differences between federal financial rescue bills and economic recovery packages. The crisis in consumer confidence, however, can be addressed closer to home by stressing Metro IBA’s goals.

The group achieves its first two objectives by its gatherings and sharing information, and by reminding consumers of benefits from buying local. Citing generally accepted retail industry research, they note that shopping and buying local keeps 68 cents of the consumer’s dollar at home, working in the community, while only 43 cents of the dollar spent at national chains remain in the community.

Gryder stresses the group is neither “anti-big” nor narrowly focused against chains. “Not all national companies are created equal,” he quipped. “Target and Best Buy are Minnesota companies and do wonderful things for this state.” What’s more, Gryder added, chains are often important vendors and customers of local merchants and manufacturers. Thus, rough edges get rounded a bit when “local” gets defined.

The third goal of Metro IBA also becomes difficult to write in stone given lack of clear public policy options on several important issues.

Health care costs are an enormous problem for small and independent businesses, members note. And “tax fairness,” an issue that doesn’t come easy for many business groups to discuss, is always a problem when costs of citizenship are constantly pushed down on homeowners and unsubsidized commercial property owners.

Public policy makers bold enough to take on such issues can turn to Metro IBA members to learn the impact of policy on local business. It won’t help a numb-struck public understand the difference between federal bank bailouts and job-creating recovery packages. It would help the public understand what is happening in its own neighborhoods.