September 1, 2014

Elyria
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Mom and pop operations unite

Small businesses want your attention on America Unchained Day

It`s Saturday afternoon, and you`re hungry.

You drive in circles in a parking lot built by businessmen who thought it would be a good idea to pepper their shopping centers with stores that share names with a hundred other stores of the same name.

JASON MILLER
(From left) Bobbi Myers of Elyria, Vivien Gray of Amherst and Kathy Grills of Elyria enjoy their lunch break at Jim`s Coffee House in downtown Elyria on Friday.

The franchises look familiar, and, by design, you know their menus and products like the back of your hand.

But hold up there, partner – at least for today, says American Independent Business Alliance, a massive compendium of independent business owners across the nation.

The Alliance of business owners has dubbed today America Unchained Day, a national initiative that some hope will rekindle the American customer`s affection for small-town businesses.

America Unchained is spearheaded by AIBA, a group made up of community activists, citizens and independently owned businesses of every make and breed: restaurants, shoe shops, music stores, jewelry store, barbers and salons, flower shops and more.

Walk through any downtown in the Midwest – places like Elyria, Oberlin, Wellington and Amherst – and it`s clear that those types of stores are still alive. Whether they`re actually thriving, however, is an entirely different matter.

AIBA created America Unchained as a response to the modern consumer`s obsession with big-box retailers and national franchises, stores that some argue are sucking money out of local communities and sending it to far-off cities where franchise headquarters are located.

Across the nation, there are 141 different organizations sponsoring America Unchained.

In Ohio, there are five organizations, and four are Main Street organizations in Lorain County, including Oberlin, Elyria, Wellington and Amherst. The local groups say they aren`t seeking a boycott on the large stores but instead are hoping to kindle an interest in the small stores.

“It`s not to say you need to get rid of all chain stores, but it`s a way to support those individual businesses,” said Tamela Grubb, executive director of Main Street Elyria. “It`s basically promoting independently owned businesses through the year, but especially on this one day when everybody commits to it.”

AIBA says that owners of independently owned businesses typically live in the community where they work and reinvest their earnings back into the community, whether through purchases or just supporting the local Little League.

AIBA statistics also say that a hometown business typically pays its employees higher wages than chain stores and generates three times more money for the local community than a chain store.

“Consumers need to understand that the money they spend in local, downtown businesses stays in the local economy,” said Mike Eppley, director at Main Street Wellington.

While it`s hard to break the modern consumer`s habits, some folks are primed for small-town purchases.
“Some people prefer not to shop at the big chains because they`re looking for the quality or uniqueness of the small stores,” Eppley said. “That is, instead of the mass-produced things made in China.”

Elyria Mayor Bill Grace said the local companies preserve that unique, local feel.

“The independently owned companies in Elyria and across America are part of the lifeblood of our communities,” Grace said. “They`re part of the unique character that makes our city different than the others.”

Eppley agreed.

“There`s a nice amount of people looking for something different and unique,” Eppley said. “They get to see the downtown architecture and have a different kind of experience you can`t get at the mall or elsewhere.”

Grubb said she`s trying to pool the resources of Elyria`s downtown businesses so they can advertise and market themselves as a group rather than as individuals.

If it works, the collective effort could help them leverage their resources and, someday, allow them to compete with national chains that spend millions of dollars on advertising.

“We want to see how we can establish our buying power as a group, rather than as individuals,” Grubb said. “It takes just one visit to get to know the local business owner.”

Grubb, and many small-town business owner, are hoping that first visit comes today.

Contact Shawn Foucher at 653-6255 or sfoucher@chroniclet.com.