Solutionists and Community Empowerment Concierges

An untold effect of government is that it sucks the time and energy from wonderful well-meaning people who believe they can change it.

A couple of months back I had an experience with an environmental activist group up here in Montana where I live. Yes believe it or not, there is such a thing in Montana – the land of coal and the only state to vote for Ron Paul.

This group who will remain nameless (to protect the not so much innocent) has been active in environmental issues for about thirty years. Their efforts are focused almost exclusively on preventing the state legislation from creating carnage on the environment. This is noble pursuit, even if it is futile the majority of the time.

While I’ve always known they were here, I never paid much attention to them. At least not until this February. I noticed an article in the Billings Gazette (our local newspaper) about a speaker they were bringing in to talk about the benefits of supporting a local food economy. Even though this area is dominated by farming, virtually none of it makes from the farm to our tables. Feed corn, sugar beets and barley contracted for beer pretty much exhaust all available farm land and resources.

Coincidentally I had just published a piece outlining a ‘Farm-to-School-to-Market’ cross-generational entrepreneurial solution  as means to rural and small town prosperity. I reached out to the group by forwarding them my piece and was pleasantly surprised when I received a response the same day. From that I scheduled a meeting to see what sort of collaboration we could generate. I was excited. Kindred spirits have not been abundant in the four years I’ve been here. Here was an opportunity for things to change. Anyone who has read this blog knows my passion is community empowerment, and local food is a big part of it.

Well I met with the group, for two hours. I brought up every possible point of connection I could think of. And without going into copious detail, there were many. But in the end, after two hours … their one question was: “What are your views on influencing policy?” It was like 120 minutes of talk of community empowerment and how ‘the streets’ can change the community completely fell on deaf ears. Apparently their only concern has been, is and will be – what will government do to protect us from the proverbial big bad wolf. And in Montana … it’s not much.

After I left though, I still held out hope our meeting would produce some sort of fruit. I sent follows up emails thanking both people I talked with. I included additional relevant material, as I said I would. The response … well, there wasn’t any. No thanks for coming in. No thanks for following up. Nothing!

Their ambivalence surprised me … even though it shouldn’t. Needless to say no collaboration has come to fruition … nor am I naive enough to think it ever will.

And I’m afraid this isn’t an isolated incident. So what’s the problem? It’s like we haven’t moved from the attitudes of the Middles Ages; depending on kings, queens and lords to take care of us, telling us what we need and then giving us just a taste while we toll endlessly for these same kings, queens and lords. In the 21st century our governments don’t have the same physical control over use they once had and granted we don’t run the risk of being starved or beheaded (for the most part). But we the populace have made a conscious effort to be  just as passive, letting self-serving egotists make decision that determine our futures … and the futures of our offspring, all in hopes of maybe getting thrown bone. We do this because it’s easier. It’s easier to not think … to let others make the decisions. And even if the decisions they make are well-meaning – their abilities to implement them are questionable at best if not nonexistent.

I agree we do need the government to step in a provide a little counter balance to the corporate shenanigans we are subjected under the guise of capitalism. But does that mean we have neuter ourselves to a position of being modern-day serfs. Apparently for many of us – it does.

We need a new attitude

For two years I’ve pushing the idea of creating a ‘system within a system’ using local business as the conduit to protecting us from megalomanical corporations and functionally incapable governments, here and abroad. The response has been good, actually very good … but there’s been a disconnect. It seems like the people who I thought would be the most excited, they’re excited – don’t get me wrong … aren’t quite onboard.

It’s not about where we need to go. We agree on that. It’s how to get there.’ And in fact the ‘how to get there’ seems to be as much of an obstacle as agreement on where we’re going. It’s all about the action plan we need to take. If people agree on an action plan, say cleaning up a vacant lot or rebuilding the neighborhood elementary school playground, then political ideologies kind of don’t matter. It’s all about the ‘Middle Ring’ then. But if you can never agree on a plan of action … then nothing gets done, regardless on any commonality of goals.

By not buying into ‘the federal government will solve all of what ails us,’ I’ve been branded at times as a  libertarian. Now I have nothing against libertarians. In fact I espouse some of their tenets. But I don’t think government should be abolished. And I’m not some ‘leave me the hell alone with my cows’ rancher in Montana. I live next to these people so I can say that. Even the idea of wearing a seatbelt is an intrusion of epic proportions up here.

Government serves a purpose. I just question the ability of those involved in it to devise a competent plan and execute it. And it doesn’t help that the Fourth Estate has completely checked out. Any media critique of government is limited to campaign fundraising numbers and access to fat cats. Even any analysis of qualifications is a stretch. It seems the profession of being an elected official requires zero background or ability related to doing the job at hand. It’s like the only thing that matters is the interview process. Yet these are the exact people so many of us blindly entrust our futures to … and more unfortunately, the futures of those who have no say in the matter – our children. We are pathetic!

A big part of this ‘government-can-fix-all’ is positioning capitalism as the villain … all forms of capitalism. The new Nomad movement (or to many, the sharing economy) is the new target in their crosshairs. By just posting a single piece on the virtues of the ‘sharing movement’ I created such a frenzy amongst pro-union labor advocates, caused me to almost delete the entire stream. “We must go back to the way it was. Our old institutions need to be brought back.” Why is this attitude any different than that of the the libertarians? There is no “Holding onto Yesterday.” Yesterday is gone, and the circumstances have changed. Instead let’s take what we’ve learned, grow from it and make things best we can with what we have. And who knows maybe they’ll be even better than they were in the supposed ‘good ole days.’

In my last piece, “Apollo 13, MacGuyver and ‘Resource Maximization,” I lamented on how we already have what we need to make things better – better for all of us, rather than a select few. We just need to refocus and abandon our reliance on traditional hierarchies and the top down control they create. The power and solutions we need are in the streets with those of us who inhabit the streets … not of those living in the ‘ivory towers’ above the reality of the one whose backs they have are standing on.

Creative morass
Credit: hongkiat.com

Join me and become a Solutionist

We just need to take the resources and connections we have and think like Solutionists rather than farming out our thinking. But for Solutionists to truly excel we need to have a operational platform to operate on and synthesize our efforts.

This platform or operational foundational is not to be hierarchical, but rather organizationally flat. Any power structures created are only should be done so for each cause or ‘solution. On-going organizations and traditional institutions existing mainly for the act of self-preservation, are taboo in our new evolved ‘solution’ based societal norm. When a problem or opportunity arises, groups of Solutionists organically form and activities dispatched using the resources and constructs of the platform. Individual volunteers or Solutionists move from cause to cause depending on their current passions and availabilities. Nothing is wasted. Resources are put towards the solution, not to the preservation of the organization.

Imagine a network of volunteers emulating nature in a biomimetic fashion with resources being directed where and when need … all for the benefit for the community.

Solutionists cannot operate in a bubble though. They have to transcend Silos and arbitrary boundaries to truly reach their goal of resource maximization and collaborative community empowerment by the people.

A white-haired clergyman leans forward in deep, intent conversation with a lady with a shaved head. To the right, three shiny-suited investment bankers cluster around a banking reform activist in his twenties. Over the course of the evening, 60 people drink red wine and laugh together in the heart of London as they watch an improvisational opera singer sum up the findings of the day: the characteristics of a financial system they would collectively be proud to put their name to.

This is not a surreal scene painted by Salvador Dali, but rather a workshop convened by The Finance Innovation Lab out of London. The purpose? To capture the energy created by the financial crisis to bring together people who don’t normally talk to one another to design a new financial system. This group knew that unusual solutions were needed — ones that acknowledge the complex interconnected issues that make a failing system so hard to transform.

The range of activities these Solutionists, or as The Finance Innovation Lab calls them, Systempreneurs is broad and heavily dependent on the system they are working on. There are some common themes in how they get their work done however:

  • They create pathways through seemingly paralytic complexity
  • They host “uncomfortable alliances” amongst friends and foes
  • They create groundswells around new solutions

Whether the issues being addressed are global, such as the international banking dilemma mentioned above, or just a neighborhood clean-up effort, Solutionists understand the contributors responsible for devising and executing the solutions. They understand them by relying on empathy. They don’t impose their world or local views and preconceptions onto the group – but rather foster collaborative workable solutions.

Building community through Empowerment Concierges

Solutionists strengthen the Middle Ring. They understand that the neighborhood and the commonalities of geographic proximity can and need to transcend any differences the group may initially bring to the table. Their goal is operable solutions. After all, they’re Solutionists.

In my Community 3.0 ecosystem, the next evolution of community empowered society oriented towards street level solutions, I call them Community Empowerment Concierge. These are the Solutionists in your community that connect the people of the streets together by creating metaphorical ‘Front Porches, places where neighbors discuss what matters in their neighborhoods and communities. These are neighborhood centers of ‘do it yourself’ community problem soving. They pull from the time of our grandparents where community and neighbors were the only option. This is the basis of Community 3.0.

Now it’s easy to say what we need. And it’s even easy to say the type of people need to do what we need. But how are these people, our Community Empowerment Concierges, you and I, make this happen.

Well fasten up! I’ll cover that in the next Mile Marker of the series “On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” as we delve into the ‘art of collaboration.’ And I invite you along for the ride … and most of all, I invite your participation and insight. 

Maybe with your help, Community 3.0 and community empowerment can be our next societal evolution. And maybe we can pick up our hands long enough to quit ‘dragging our knuckles’ on the pavement of our passive ‘past times behind.’ 

After all, even the Neanderthals evolved.

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I invite you to travel with me on my journey,“On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” as I attempt to articulate my vision of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues – both problems and opportunities. Consider each week’s post a mile marker (MM) of sorts, a cerebral off ramp, taking a you little further down this road until sometime in September when we reach … well you can decide what we’ve reached for yourself. Also please subscribe so you can receive the weekly installments.

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I can be found on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

Apollo 13, MacGyver and ‘Resource Maximization’

Apollo 13 was the seventh manned mission in the American Apollo space program and the third intended to land on the Moon. The craft was launched on April 11, 1970, at 13:13 CST from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days later, crippling the service module upon which the Command Module depended. Despite great hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of potable water, and the critical need to jury-rig the carbon dioxide removal system, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17.

Aploolo 13 duct tape
Credit: NASA

The astronauts of Apollo 13 had to do what they had to with limited resources, none of which were designed for the task at hand. But all the same, they made it work and gave us one of the great examples American ingenuity. It’s now time for this ingenuity to come home … home to our communities.

Forward to 2015

It’s July, 2015 and we are submersed right in the middle in of the abyss of useless junk otherwise known as the 2016 presidential election and all it’s irrelevant glory. Daily we get reports from the various campaign junkets. Hillary Clinton is stumping in some coffee house in New Hampshire to throes of faithful lamenting the fact we need a woman president. Jeb Bush is probably across the street trying to figure out how to duck and roll from inevitable questions concerning the debacle his brother and father caused in the Middle East … unsuccessfully so if I may say so myself. The rest of the inhabitants of the Republican clown car bark their tired anti-Obama clichés as they rumble down the road of pothole ridden ideology.

Everything is about the game. The media discuss only a candidate’s ability to attract donors or at best what a candidate might want to do if god help us, they get elected. But most of the time, we don’t even hear that. The best we can hope for is some sort of soundbite on their views of a current event or disaster the media deems worthy of throwing in our face ad nauseam. There is zero fourth estate critical discussion and analysis. Only a secured seat on the Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush campaign plane matters. Fear of ruffling a feather reigns supreme at risk of getting kicked to back of the bus or worse yet out the door.

But regardless of who the American people deem worthy or least repulsive, the effects of their decision aren’t likely to have much of an impact on public’s lives … regardless of what the media portrays. The real game is will be played on the state and local levels. The political shenanigans being played out at these levels will have a much large effect on the state of our communities and our wellbeing than anything happening in Washington. Under foot is a movement nationwide, led by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), designed to roll back just about any semblance of safety net this country has constructed. The targets on the front lines of this movement are state legislators and local elected officials. These are the people we don’t pay much attention to during our trips to the voting booth. Who we choose in these races is often an afterthought, with decisions probably being made according to strict adherence to party lines. And this is exactly what the right-wing austerity kings are banking on – literally.

Just a couple of week ago it was announced that mega donor oligarchs Charles and David Koch and Sheldon Aldenstein will join forces to push their 2016 agendas of political rape and pillage. Our state and local governments are in dire risk of being overtaken by this newly constructed joint machine of conservative influence and mayhem.

Unfortunately, even if the other side had an answer to this unbridled assault on all things for the common good – they seem powerless to do anything about it. However well intended the Democrats, liberals or progressives may be, their ability to counter the organizational and monetary prowess of this malignant metastization is nill. This is especially the case in many areas where the push back is needed most. Urban progressive and liberal strongholds are holding their own and in many cases, such as Los Angeles and Seattle, making inroads (i.e. minimum wage legislation). But much of the rest of the country, such as the midwest and former labor hubs like Wisconsin and Michigan, is going just the opposite direction. And the ones politically leading this middle class deconstruction are the exact ones who are leading the polls for the GOP presidential race, such as Koch brothers puppet Scott Walker of Wisconsin. If you are a pro ‘big government will fix all what ails’ type of person … you’re probably crying in your beer right now. If you find the money to pay for it. The future does not look bright for you and your idea of the American Dream fast becoming a distant memory.

‘We the People’ need a new strategy

I read an interesting piece few months ago by Heather Fleming, CEO of Catapult Design. Catapult Design are designers, engineers, and educators working with forward-thinking organizations using technology as a means to drive social change. Their process features a human-centered approach to social challenges. The piece I read follows the same train of thought as the Apollo 13 example I used above, but only its metaphor is based on the ’80s TV show MacGyver. Below, according to Ms. Fleming, are MacGyver’s ‘four enablers of creativity’ or as I call it Resource Maximization – utilizing what you have to its fullest and not worrying about what you don’t have.

  • He is a do-er. It’s easy for teams to sidestep creativity when taking on a new endeavor by quibbling over objectives. Ambiguity is uncomfortable. MacGyver uses action to work through the ambiguity. He could sit and have a discussion about his options, or create a tradeoff matrix, but he chooses to learn by doing.
  • His resources are defined. One of the first things he does at the start of a design project is figure out what he knows and what he doesn’t know. He makes constraints. It’s a contrast to what we associate with creativity—which is blue-sky, free-thinking, no rules. But the lack of constraints, or lack of a creative process, is in fact a deterrent to producing innovative results.
  • His goal is clear and a deadline is imminent. For MacGyver, the bomb is always ticking down. He has a defined amount of time. Failure is not an option. It’s similar to that feeling you get the night before a deadline, when the creative adrenaline rushes in at 2 a.m. The pressure is necessary to drive action.
  • He doesn’t have to ask for permission. Imagine if MacGyver had to stop with 15 seconds left on the bomb ticker to get clearance to use a set of pliers. Creating an enabling environment—tools on hand, creative ‘places,’ ‘time’ for creativity, diversity in thought—is what helps him get the job done.

A community must maximize what it has … and not worry about what it doesn’t

Every community has an abundance of resources. To identify, uncover and ‘maximize’ these resources, is the trick. A top-notch web designer could be sitting in a high school English class. An unemployed electrician could be at home just be waiting for an opportunity to help his community rather spend another day sitting on the couch watching home improvement shows. A neighborhood card club might want to deliver homemade food to a shut-in rather play that hundredth hand of Pinochle. And the less we have, the more resourceful we need to be.

Indians have an expression called jugaad – meaning an innovative fix using few resources. While this thinking may conjure up the enterprising street merchant, the meaning is often used to signify creativity to make existing things work or to create new things with meager resources. The definition of our resources today is no longer those that we have been given or directly control, but those around us we can access. But this only works if we have the mindset to see it that way, and the resourcefulness to access it. We especially see this with the proliferation of the sharing economy.

Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the first alternative energy movement was taking hold.  Jimmy Carter’s investment tax credits and an energy crisis had created a new booming business. Everybody was talking solar energy.  At the time, when my Dad wasn’t teaching current events in high school, he was selling, talking and living solar energy.

There was this little town down the road from where we lived in North Dakota called Surrey.  They wanted to jump on the bandwagon and heat their new community swimming pool with solar.  My dad went out to look at the situation and give them a bid.  The problem was, Surrey only had about two thousand people and not much of a budget for anything, let alone a solar heated pool.

The consensus was to put several panels on a nearby roof and pump the heat to the pool.  Problem was … that solution cost two to three times more than they had.

Now the pool hadn’t been built yet and the only work done was the excavation for the new tennis courts next to it. Now what is a solar panel but just a way to collect the sun’s heat a send it where you need it.  And what is one of the hottest things we encounter in our daily lives? Asphalt! My Dad’s solution was to run PVC pipe under the tennis courts and circulate the pool water through it.  No solar panels, just asphalt. Surrey got it’s solar heated pool … and under budget.

Look at your community in different way … a way where YOU are the solution

“Imagine” … close your eyes and think about where you live – your neighborhood. What does it look like? Imagine walking the streets, looking at the broken playground at the elementary school down the block, the vacant lots riddled with weeds, the elderly woman outside the blue house that hasn’t been painted in years.

Imagine looking inside the local middle school where you know there are children that have fallen behind, and could catch up with just a little extra help – but won’t get it. And think about how they will probably drop out … forever handicapping their future.

You walk down Main Street. Remember when it was “the place” to go, whether you wanted a gift for your niece’s birthday, those few special grocery items or even that “once-a-month” night out. It’s not the same now. The Wal-Mart, Wall Street chain restaurants and big box stores have made those memories a distant thing of the past.

Everywhere, when you really think about it, you realize help is needed …everywhere. And everywhere there are opportunities to help, to make your community better. But in most cases, it’s only those that live in those communities, in the neighborhoods – who are the ones that can help.

Government isn’t going to help. Especially now, with dysfunction being in vogue. Resources available five years ago have, or are in danger of being severely cut. Schools are now more concerned about budgets than they are about children. Local beautification efforts, well – that’s a thing of the past. Food banks are full of patrons, but food on the shelves … not so much. Communities need help.

I’m not a libertarian or anti-government aid. I’m a realist though. To debate endlessly about what should be done by someone else is counterproductive if it isn’t likely to happen anyway. We can look at our circumstances two ways. We can reminisce and wish they were better, maybe like they used to be (or least how we thought they were). Or we can look at our ‘little worlds’ as opportunities, opportunities to do something, to make things better. We don’t have depend on someone else or some government to do it for us. Just grab the people around you, your friends and neighborhoods and ‘fix’ something in your community.

Your resources are everywhere. You just have to open those eyes you closed when you imagined what needed to be done. Now is the time to take examples from MacGyver and the heroes of Apollo 13, and even my Dad – take what we have … and ‘maximize’ it.

Now is time for our communities and the people in them to come together – and instead waiting for help … help themselves!

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I invite you to travel with me on my journey,“On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” as I attempt to articulate my vision of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues – both problems and opportunities. Consider each week’s post a mile marker (MM) of sorts, a cerebral off ramp, taking a you little further down this road until sometime in September when we reach … well you can decide what we’ve reached for yourself. Also please subscribe so you can receive the weekly installments.

_________________________________________________

I can be found on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

“Where Everyone Knows Your Name”

During the mid ’90s I lived in Marin County, California; specifically Tiburon. Tiburon is small community of about 7,000 nestled around the Richardson and San Francisco Bays just north of San Francisco proper. It has a small town feel in an idyllic setting, yet has access to all the big city trimmings. The businesses I patronized were all locally owned, and mostly felt like family. While I rarely socialized with them outside of doing business, they all knew me, knew about me and knew my daughter Alex.

The florist down the street from our apartment became so used to my weekly “stock up the vases” trips that my phone number was on the bulletin board behind the cash register. “Call Clay as soon as the Parrot Tulips come in.” I must have been at the IGA grocery store every day. In fact I often just stopped in just to talk … even when I didn’t even need anything. If there was anything I wanted they didn’t carry, it took them only a couple of days – and then they did. I even brought in my knives to get sharpened by Tom the butcher. I could have done it myself. But if I did – I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to talk Minnesota Vikings football with Tom (another transplanted Minnesotan). In the days leading up to the draft I had the sharpest knives in Marin County.

And I remember the calendar I’d get from the Daily Grill detailing the special events they had coming for the month. They knew my favorite dish, wild boar. They’d even call (yes, on the phone) when they were getting a special shipment in … so I could make room on my schedule (which I always did).

They knew me. And because of it … I was a great customer.

Tiburon apartment view cropped

“Where Everyone Knows Your Name”

In the ’80s one of the top shows on television was the sitcom, “Cheers.” It made household names of Ted Danson, Woody Harrelson, Shelly Long and Kelsey Grammar. But maybe the biggest star of the show was it’s theme song, “Where Everyone Knows Your Name” by Gary Portnoy. Cheers wasn’t a bar, it was a 2nd home (or for some a 1st). And for a half an hour every week, it was a vicarious 2nd home for its audience. Everywhere I shopped in Tiburon was kind of like this. My community was really my home. And with working out of my home, the businesses I frequented were often at the center it.

Creating customer relationships like this are the holy grail of any merchant. But they can be for the customer as well. After all – “They know your name.” I’m a locavore through and through. And not just concerning food. I avoid national chains and even franchises like the plague. I took it to the next level in trip I made from my sister’s place in Nebraska to my home in Los Angeles I described in the previous post, Don’t fall for Starbuck. Even inanimate objects such  interstate highways weren’t immune from my disdain of national entities.

In all these cases, I was the one who extended my hand first in the relationship. I got to know them. And I made it known when I moved to town, or they opened shop, I was interested in doing business with them. All they had to do is not screw up too bad. And even then – there were always 2nd and 3rd chances to be given. As long as they cared about me and tried, they were always given the benefit of the doubt. After all, they were my friends. Needless to say this was before the days of Yelp and what it seems like the tenuous relationship between customer and merchant, one always on the verge of blowing up into a toxic internet feud (a feud no one wins).

That was twenty years ago though and pretty much all shopping options in Tiburon were locally owned. Even getting to a big box store in Marin County was a chore. Today this is not the case. Chains and big box stores are everywhere, and customers like me who shun them are few and far in between. The competitive landscape for locally owned businesses is much more treacherous. And that’s not going to change anytime soon.

But what can change however is the metaphorical vehicle they have to navigate this landscape. What they need are the tools to create these friendships with customers that will turn occasional visitors into rabid evangelists like I was. They need to turn their business into a place “Where Everyone Knows Your Name.” And with social media and the plethora of communication mediums at their disposal, this can be easier than twenty years ago … but also harder due to the noise that has to be cut through.

Managing to not fall prey to the hubris of 21st century advertising involves making your message relevant. During the mid 2000s at the end of my tenure as a recruiter, I became intricately involved in database one-to-one marketing. Back in 2005, this meant being able to customize a direct mail piece to the specifics of recipient. Whether it was variable text or even imagery, marketing messages could be made much more relevant. And as a result, they became much more effective, often increasing response rates a ten fold.

Of course, these days just mentioning direct mail conjures up visions of marketing Luddites. With everything and everyone being turned into an app, a cookie, a like, a share or a favorite; print is an afterthought. Regardless of the medium though, it’s still the same. They’re all forms of communication, and the communication has to be relevant (both in terms of content and timing) to be effective. And the most powerful form of relevance is a response to an event.

By events I don’t mean just holidays or your birthday. A recent visit your local bookstore, could be considered an event. Or even test driving a new car you didn’t buy. They are events, and they’re all opportunities for a merchant and you, the patron, to have a constructive communication after the fact … a communication that builds a relationship.

These communications show you, the customer, that the merchant recognizes you were there. It shows that you are an individual – not just another number in their standardized mailing list … or not just another ‘like.’ It’s a communication that builds a synaptic relationship, a memory. And these memories are the golden opportunities a business has to solidify a customer relationship. 

A local business could notify you when you hadn’t been around in while. And in trying to get you back, they could make you special offer. Or imagine if you were kept abreast when they received a good deal on something that you had a history of purchasing (like me and the wild boar). Or even better yet imagine your local ‘hangout’ considered you a VIP and had special events and discounts exclusively for you and your other fellow VIPs.

 The options for post-event communications and ‘making you feel special’ are endless. It just needs to be in the mind set of the merchant. They have to want to take their relationship with you to one that’s not the ‘same as usual’ … but rather one aimed at turning you into an evangelist. Imagine the following examples being part of the rapport you and your local business engaged in. And these are just a few of the plethora limited only by your imagination:

  • “WOW, you must have been hungry” (Follow-up after large purchase): Big spenders like to be loved. Customers who spend over a certain amount of money in one sitting are sent out a thank you note with an offer to buy more.
  • “Haven’t seen you in a while” (Customer re-activation): It’s hard enough to get you as a customer, so the last thing they want to do is let you fade away.  Imagine being  automatically contacted by merchant a customer who hasn’t patronized you lately (within a pre-determined time frame) with a re-activating “come back in” offer.
  • “We got a great deal” (Bulk buy pass along): The key to business success is finding good deals and turning them over quickly.  Enable your company to jump on these deals by using “We got a great deal” to notify customers who can take advantage of your good fortune with  “pass along” savings.
  • “Join  us  on our VIP night” (VIP Club program): Imagine being VIP at your favorite watering hole.  “Join us on our VIP night” lets you create exactly that for your customers. You can create a special VIP night or event exclusive only to your top patrons.
  • “We want your suggestion” (Virtual suggestion box): Being in the middle of the trees often prevents you from seeing the entire forest – a forest only your customers may be able to see. “We want your Suggestions” provides your business with an online virtual suggestion box for your customers. Making them feel part of your business – will only strengthen your bond.

Now let’s take the relationship one step further. Imagine if the focus wasn’t just to get you to ‘buy more stuff,’ but to enlist your assistance in the building of your community. What if they asked you to help … to rise above just being a customer, and become a community collaborator.

Whether companies believe it or not, their customers are interested in a lot more than just their products and whatever sales they’re blasting over the airwaves. The more a company can transcend this attitude, the stronger the relationship they will be able to build with their customer base. The more points of substantive connection that are made … the stronger the relationship.

A merchant’s goal should be to expand the breadth of commonalities it shares with its customers … reaching past the doors of its store to the community it co-inhabits.

In previous posts I’ve elaborated on the Middle Ring phenomenon as the basis for building community through neighborhood connections. At the physical center of the Middle Ring is the Front Porch. A Front Porch is the metaphorical, or sometimes literal, meeting place where neighbors gather and discuss the issues of their community. Your neighborhood’s Front Porch can be anywhere or anything. It can be the local pub down the street or the coffee house you get your morning the expresso from. It can be Bill’s garage where everyone hangs out to watch Sunday football games. It can even be your kitchen table. What happens on the the Front Porch is what matters … not what is looks like or where it is.

Why can’t your community’s local businesses be your Front Porch? Why can’t your small business be where community volunteer and wellbeing efforts are planned and executed? Why can’t it be the nexus of how your community becomes better.

Just imagine efforts like these that could grow from local business turned Front Porch in your neighborhood:

  • “Pretty Picture on the Wall” Imagine if your community’s unknown artists suddenly had a had a venue for their work. And what if it was a venue, say a local restaurant, could generate income for them.  This initiative could connect a community’s artists, whether they be a talented youngster or a homeless person living on the streets – with a merchant that has wall space to fill. These ad hoc galleries give exposure, generates artist revenue and provide the merchant a source of local art to show off in their establishment.
  • “I’m not Alone Anymore” Being cut off from society is a killer for the elderly and shut-ins, literally. The less fortunate often have no family or friends around to make sure their basic needs are taken care of. They don’t have anyone to make sure they eat properly or take them to the doctor or get their medications. And that’s not even saying anything about mental support. Their likely future involves depression … or even premature death at home or worse yet, in an “old folks home.” Imagine if your community’s local businesses could step in by organizing their employees and customers to be the connectivity to the community that these people once had by not only helping with their physical needs but also providing emotional support. Even if just means a weekly visit for a cup of coffee … these people will not be forgotten for long.
  • “Help Me … I’m Dirty” Do ever you walk past that vacant lot and wonder what could be … what could be if someone did something. If someone just cleaned it up, that would be a start. But then, who knows what we could make it. And maybe if this vacant lot became something – something beautiful, then maybe it would catch on. Just like a team is only as strong as its weakest link, your community’s physical viability is only as strong as it’s most dilapidated property or park. And the momentum works in both ways, letting it go … revitalizing it. And what if instead of battling city hall to act, your community’s local businesses stepped in a provided the conduit for these actions through its employees and customers.
  • “Making the Transition” We feel that once high school is over, our children will be ready to tackle their futures on their own. If we don’t send them out into a world with unprecedented unemployment, then it’s off to college to accumulate tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Very seldom is high school set up to provide needed transitional advice. Imagine if it was your community’s local businesses who provided this ‘hand up’ by enlisted its itself or even its customers on-the-job training experiences or apprenticeships along with career guidance. These experiences will give recent graduates or even current high school students the opportunity to see the “ins and outs” of a profession before they jump in with both feet. And who knows, it may even get the your community’s ‘best and brightest’ to stay in town, rather than pack up and venture to point far away … too far to be of any future benefit for your city.

These examples of a “Where Everyone Knows Your Name” philosophy of doing business isn’t ‘friending’ a brand on Facebook. It’s not ‘checking in’ on Foursquare. It’s creating a genuine human relationship between a customer and a merchant, relationships that go much deeper than just “buying stuff.” This is synergy where you are helping each other – and building your community together. This is taking ’cause marketing’ to a different level. The traditional customer/merchant exchange of ‘money for goods’ is not only transcended … it’s been relegated to a by-product, an assumed afterthought.

What if your life was filled with these type of relationships, relationships that complimented those of your Middle Ring neighbors. Imagine if your life was an ecosystem where every interaction you have could enhance your life and not just take up time. Wouldn’t you want to live like this … where the line between customers and providers is blurred – where your goals are all the same. Isn’t it time to consider yourself a community collaborator – creating a world that works everyone.

You would be creating a community wherever you went, “They would know your name.”

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I invite you to travel with me on my journey,“On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” as I attempt to articulate my vision of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues – both problems and opportunities. Consider each week’s post a mile marker (MM) of sorts, a cerebral off ramp, taking a you little further down this road until sometime in September when we reach … well you can decide what we’ve reached for yourself. Also please subscribe so you can receive the weekly installments.

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You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

“Buy Local” … or maybe not!

“Every time I step out on stage, I know the people in the audience work hard to afford a ticket to one of my shows … so I have to prepare, work as hard as I can and do my best to make sure they get their money’s worth” ~ Alicia Moore (aka P!NK)

The chorus of “Buy Local” has become the new “Buy American.” This is especially the case with all the corporate shenanigans going on. The executives of Monsanto, Wells Fargo and B of A should be in jail. Wal-Mart is doing its best to decimate local economies, forcing themselves into communities by all nefarious means possible. And twenty-nine hours a week is the new full-time, since it falls under the federally mandated health insurance requirements.

The only way us ‘common folk’ can fight back is to buy local. And it makes sense. Only 15% of the revenue from a big box store like Wal-Mart or Target finds its way into the local economy – while the rest goes to national or international suppliers, stockholders and C-level management to points unknown. Compare that to 45+% that stays in town with a locally owned store. And these statistics are even more dramatic in the restaurant industry where 79% of local restaurant revenue stays local, compared to only 30% from the national chains.Hard to argue with those numbers. You buy locally and you help your neighbors and probably yourself as well. You don’t … you won’t.

Red Lodge main Street

“I’ll take the first step … but please help me out!” 

While buying locally may cost a few more cents on the dollar, I would hope still most us would be willing to help out our community. And by patronizing local business, in theory you should get better service. After all, your neighbors know you or at least should feel a ‘kinship’ with you.

Technically local businesses should have an unfair advantage. In addition to their knowledge of their customers, they can adjust to local market conditions. In the time it takes for a big box store to even get market intelligence – their local competition is out the gate with a new set of products and a promotion to match. Combine that with their superior customer service – any premium put on big box price should be discounted.

In theory, this should be the case. But such is not necessarily the way it is.

Recently, I’ve been helping out my parents in Montana. As with most people in their 70’s and 80’s, health-care is a constant issue. And central to elderly health-care is prescription drugs and their relationship with their pharmacy. Such is the case with my parents and their primary pharmacy – which is locally owned.

My parents have been very good customer of (a pharmacy that will remain nameless) for twenty plus years. You would think that sort of relationship would warrant at the very least, good service. Rather than go into copious detail, lets just say … the help is rude, seldom is a prescription sent out when promised, and they charge extra just to put something in the mail. And don’t you dare bring up the idea of a less expensive alternative drug. Who am I to say anything! I don’t have the letters after my name.

Yet this business will be the first to complain about the invasion of Walgreens and CVS.

“We can’t compete because of the bulk buying advantage the giants have. We can’t compete against their advertising budgets.”

No mention is made of the fact that (a pharmacy that will remain nameless) has been a member of the Billings community for decades, serving generations of customers. Nor is there any mention of the advantage they have because of their key location, right on the ground floor of the main hospital in the city – a location they procured shortly after the hospital was built.

Their negative attitude is evident with their employees also. It’s as if they’re just waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop” And the way they act, when that shoes drops … they act like they’ll be waiting in line for a bed at the homeless shelter on Montana Ave. They don’t say it, but it’s almost like it’s a requirement to shop there if you live in Billings. After all, they’re a local business – and aren’t you supposed to support local business!

And unfortunately, this is just one of the examples I regularly encounter here with local businesses. Thank god for my favorite pet store to help balance things out. Who can resist when it’s time for Reptilemania!

Here’s my conundrum. I am adamantly in favor of buying local. Personally I think by bringing the power back to Main Street, we can retake our country and our lives from the unscrupulous corporate hacks that have hijacked it. This extra injection of money and entrepreneurial opportunity into our communities can go to help our children’s schools, our elderly, our less fortunate … and on top of it, our own wallets.

Can man crop

Be a partner in your community’s local businesses

I’m willing to you give the first chance if you’re local, and I may even give you a second chance if you screw up. But you have to show me you want my business and you care about me. If you don’t already know me – take the time to get to know me. Then call me by my name – and remember what I buy (or at least if I buy it a lot). If you get a deal on something you know I like, let me know and let me share in your savings. Show me you’re part of the community and want to make it better … like the chain stores can’t. Make me part of your extended family – and I’ll do the same and I’ll be loyal. It won’t matter if I have to pay a couple of dollars more – you’re family.

But to justify those couple of dollars, you have to show it and meet me half way. I don’t want a “woe is me” attitude from your employees – or you. I want you to understand that having a business in my community, in my neighborhood – is not a right, it’s a privilege … a privilege that can be taken away by me, and by my neighbors.

If you’re cool with all this – then you’ll have a great customer. You’ll have great customer that’s loyal and will refer their friends to you.

My conditions may seem a bit harsh, but they have to be. Owning a business isn’t supposed to be easy. But at least you know where I stand and you can act accordingly. And if I see something I think you can improve on, don’t be defensive … because I’m going to tell you. Most people just defect and run to the big box stores without any notice. I’m laying my cards on the table. It’s not only in your best interest to get better … it’s in mine and our community’s. We want you to stay in business.

My goal here is to increase the communication between the merchant and the customer. This communication will result in a feedback loop that will make the small business compete better against the Wall Street chains. Be an informal consultant for your community’s local businesses. Tell them what they did right … and tell them what they’ve done wrong (but do it tactfully). Your community’s small businesses are not your adversaries. On the contrary, they’re your teammate in your effort to strengthen the community you all live in. The enemy are the big box stores and chain stores that “grab the money and run” to a place far, far away.

Be your local business’s eyes and ears in the community. If they don’t provide something you have to go to a chain for … tell them. Be a partner in their business. Help create the symbiotic relationships and infrastructure that will strengthen your community … not weaken it. It’s through commerce with these local merchant that a community takes on its unique identity and nurtures the ‘space’ that acts as a conduit to rebuilding the ‘Middle Ring’ of neighborhood relationships necessary for a community to function at its fullest.

I wish just that being local was enough for me to be a customer “forever after.”  But like any relationship, it takes work and work … and then some more work.

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I invite you to travel with me on my journey, “On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” as I attempt to articulate my vision of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues – both problems and opportunities. Consider each week’s post a mile marker (MM) of sorts, a cerebral off ramp, taking a you little further down this road until sometime in September when we reach … well you can decide what we’ve reached for yourself. Also please subscribe so you can receive the weekly installments.

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You can find on Twitter at @clayforsberg or on Google+

Cheating the Grim Reaper of ‘Small Town U.S.A.’

Four years ago, I first addressed the issue of the plight of Small Town U.S.A. After living five years now in a small town with a population of 500 which is essentially a bedroom community for Billings, Montana (pop. 100,000), I believe the issue is even more relevant today than then. And even though I labeled this post ‘Small Town U.S.A.’ … it could be anywhere, here or abroad. 

Back in 2011 I saw an MSNBC piece on an independent movie made about the small town of Medora, Indiana. Medora has a population of about 600 and is known, notoriously, for its high school basketball team, and its 2009 twenty-two game losing streak and their pursuit to win just one game. But there’s much more about the film than just basketball – and there’s also much more about Medora.

Like many, many other small towns around America, they’re struggling for their survival. In Medora’s case, they’re reeling from losing a plastics factory, the town’s main employer … as well as staring at the possibility of even losing their identity, their high school. Below is the interview on MSNBC with directors Andrew Cohn and Davey Rothbart.

A major tenet of this blog, “On the Road to Your Perfect World,” is community empowerment and self-sufficiency. I’ve been lamenting ad nauseam that our government will not be there for us, and nor will corporate America. In fact, on the contrary, corporate American is doing it’s best to destroy Small Town U.S.A. (whether intentional or not). It’s up to us to fight back and save our communities, and save our neighborhoods. Because if we don’t – nobody will.

But it’s not that easy. What if the people can’t help their community, can’t be there to help their neighbors … and maybe can’t even help themselves. What if the people of your community don’t have the ‘skill set’ to make it in this new world that is evolving faster than most can keep up. Relying on what worked in the past often doesn’t get it done in the present – let alone in the future. Make no mistake, experience is a valuable component of civic and personal sustainability (and if sustainability isn’t a term you regularly use then you have a lot of work to do). But the trick is converting that experience into action that is applicable today and in the future.

Door

Your Small Town needs to develop a ‘Survival Skill Set’

So here is my idea on how convert this experience your community possesses into the proper ‘skill set’  for “Small Town U.S.A.” – circa 2015 and beyond. Actually, it’s more a set of attitudes. Because without the proper frame of mind – all the training money can buy, will be all for not.

  • Embrace change and be flexible: Expect your life to be turned upside down tomorrow when you wake up. Strike the word security from your vocabulary. The only security you’ll have in 2015 and beyond, especially in a small town, is yourself and ability to navigate the inevitable changes that will “slap you in the face” when you least expect it. Don’t be pre-occupied with trying to hang on to “the way things were.” The only constant in life is change … so deal with it!
  • Embrace technology: Technology and specifically the internet is everywhere, and embedded in everything. Technology will buffer you from the ups and down of a local economy. Become adept at social media. Social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) will widen your reach of contacts and ultimately the support when you need it most. The internet will also enable you to create income being a “location independent” micro-entrepreneur.
  • Embrace your community: Your community, your neighbors, are your primary safety net and support structure. Don’t be a recluse. Lend a hand whenever you can. Be the “go-to person” in your town. Be the ‘help leader’ that people will follow. Be the one that is the first one to rally the people to make things better for all. A positive, action oriented attitude is contagious.
  • Embrace the youth: Make your town the one that welcomes young people. For it’s the young people who will create the new opportunities, the opportunities that will keep your town’s death at bay. Don’t be part of a town that only tries to “hang to yesterday,” and tries to prevent any intrusion into this allegedly idyllic time … the time that is no longer and never will be. Business owners need to part of the solution also. Mentoring and internship programs do wonders keeping your young talent at home, rather than having them leave town for better opportunities.
  • Focus on businesses that serve out-of-town customers: If you’re an entrepreneur, stay away from ventures that serve only your fellow community members, especially if the services you offer already exist locally. Don’t depend on revenue only generated from your community. Be responsible for bringing needed money into the community rather than cannibalize the existing businesses of your neighbors.
  • Foster cross-generational cooperation: I already mentioned a small town needs to ’embrace its youth,’ but that doesn’t mean neglecting the rest of its residents – especially the elderly. It’s the mix of the young and the old that create a town’s personality, one that’s unique. Make it a point to identify areas of generational cross-pollination. Retirees can mentor high schoolers, while the younger ones can assist the older generations get up to speed on technology. Turn schools into community hubs for all ages. Silos are for grain and corn, not for a society or your community.
  • Support your local businesses: I could have labeled this “Don’t buy into the Snake Oil of Wall Street.” 40% to 50% percent of each dollar spent at a locally owned business stays in the community. And only 15% percent does with a large corporate entity, like Walmart, Target or Home Depot. What does that tell you! That’s 30% that could go to local parks or local business owners that would in turn spend it at other local business owners and on and on.
  • Embrace your Weirdos: It’s the creative people, the out-of-the-box thinkers … who are ones who push the boundaries and shatter the status quo. They tremble at the words – normal, or conventional. These are the “Weirdos.” The ones who don’t conform, the Albert Einsteins, the Steve Jobs, the Truman Capotes and the Orson Wells. They scare the normal people. When this country has made strides and moved ahead – it’s the “Weirdos” that blazed the way for others to follow … often to much prejudice and ostracism. But we forget that those proverbial roads we often take for granted – were the result of the chances they took … and not us.

In the end, all the above suggestions are about change, or at least being open to it. People generally want things to be the same or the way they were. It’s this attitude that decimates a community. “Small Town U.S.A.” doesn’t need to be a thing of the past, only a distant memory.

It just needs only to change … to change its attitudes.

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I invite you to travel with me on my journey,“On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” as I attempt to articulate my vision of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues – both problems and opportunities. Consider each week’s post a mile marker (MM) of sorts, a cerebral off ramp, taking a you little further down this road until sometime in September when we reach … well you can decide what we’ve reached for yourself. Also please subscribe so you can receive the weekly installments.

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You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

Why ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ Matters

Over the course of my recent blog series, “On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” one of the main tenets I’ve stressed has been that every member of a community, no matter who they are, has value and should be recognized for their unique gifts. Everyone adds to the fabric of your community.

In the piece, ‘Empathy and ‘Shared Experience,’ I stressed importance of individual relationships and empathy in building the foundation of a community. In ‘Cross-pollination and Creating Your Own Personal Renaissance I suggested that not only do we need to accept all of our neighbors, but it’s our duty to show them their talents even when they can’t see themselves. In both these pieces, as throughout the entire series, the concept of the ‘Middle Ring’ and neighborhood connections reigns supreme to the success and prosperity to any community.

Also over the years I’ve also written about the stigma of mental illness and addiction and the toll it takes not only on those affected, but on our society as whole. The preconceptions, very often perpetuated by the media and family generational ignorance, is a disease in our society that must be eradicated. These attitudes are prevalent with the lifelong Scarlett Letter given to those with alcoholism or drug addiction where one is never truly better but always in a state of recovery or relapse, and the macho ‘suck it up attitude’ towards the effects of PTSD in the military. 

Well society, or should I say the entertainment side of it, may have taken a step towards walking a little more upright on Sunday night. Yes, we pulled our knuckles off the ground (if for just a bit). Sunday night the Tony Award for the best Broadway play for a drama went to ‘The Curious Case of a Dog in the Night-Time. ‘The Curious Case…’ is a play based on the 2003 book written by Mark Haddon which follows the investigation of a suspicious death of a neighbor’s dog. Haddon’s main character, Christopher John Francis Boone, suffers (and I don’t even think I should use that word) with Aspergers Syndrome, a form of Autism.

Curious Incident

Asperger’s is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, alongside with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. But it can also result in high functioning specialized area of expertise, such as math in the case of Boone. In fact as only a teenager, he performed at college level. Boone is a perfect example of an outlier in our communities who would be looked at as odd and nothing but a liability. But in truth, he’s the exact type of person that we need to not only accept … but celebrate.

Last fall, on my last trip down to Los Angeles to see my daughter, Alexandria, I read ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ At times it was difficult to read. In fact I had to put it down several occasions because it was just too much. I became immersed in Boone’s decision-making. He methodically described his thought process (including diagrams) – so it felt like you were there as I went though his daily activities and all the preparations, or rather the rituals, he depended on. I was there when he justified decisions I knew were going to go wrong … and did. But to him they made perfect sense and you felt for him. I had empathy. I was put into his world, however different that world was from mine – or anything I could conceive.

We need more books like ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.’ Or maybe they’re out there and they don’t get the recognition. Even the so-called experts predicting the Tony winners gave the play little chance and it was barely mentioned in conversation. Apparently they hadn’t seen it or read the book. But then again it’s the media, why should we expect anything from them but to aspire to the lowest common denominator. This is exactly why we, the people in the streets and in our communities, need to search out these outliers in our society and see what they’re all about, not just automatically dismiss or worse yet brand them with a Scarlett Letter. These are the people who add the color to our lives and unexpected experiences we’ll remember. But it takes effort to break past the stereotypes and societal norms that cloud our visions. It takes exercising our minds, breaking outside of our comfort zones.

I don’t want hold my breath, but I hope this acknowledgement of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ will start a dialogue on the virtue of being different. I’ve even decided to refrain from calling conditions like Asperger’s and Autism illnesses. Maybe should we all take note and follow. Maybe when we encounter people like Christopher John Francis Boone, we should view it as a challenge to make ourselves better people. Maybe we can look at it as an opportunity to give our bloodied Neanderthal knuckles a chance to heal.

It takes taking a break from the looking for the ‘sameness, if yet for just a little bit. And you never know, if you try … maybe that little bit will become a habit.

And that would be a good thing.

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I invite you to travel with me on my journey, “On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” as I attempt to articulate my vision of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues – both problems and opportunities. Consider each week’s post a mile marker (MM) of sorts, a cerebral off ramp, taking a you little further down this road until sometime in September when we reach … well you can decide what we’ve reached for yourself. Also please subscribe so you can receive the weekly installments.

_________________________________

You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+

Don’t fall for Starbuck and “Staying off the Interstate”

About ten years ago I took a road trip from Los Angeles to visit my parents in Montana. After a couple of weeks, I drove back via my sister’s place in Nebraska. When leaving Christy’s place, I thought I’d try something. What if I made it all the way home to Southern California without touching an interstate highway or spending a cent at a national chain company.

It’s too easy to default to the easy … get on the highway, get off and eat McDonalds – and get back on the highway, and on and on. But isn’t there more?

My first stop was in Oklahoma. It was noon … lunch time, on two lane State Road 14. Out of nowhere was a little grocery store … and next to it was this huge black gentleman laboring over a barbecue barrel. This was lunch! After three dollars, great conversation – and the best pulled pork barbecue sandwich I have ever had, I drove on.

Now I could go on about the next two days. I could talk about Pie Town (the pumpkin pie is to die for!) … but I think you know how it’ll turn out. Every stop was memorable. Little I did know that venture would result in a business and life purpose I’m putting in play today.

Pie Town Cafe

Understand who your community really is … and who it isn’t

In the iconic 1950’s play, ‘The Rainmaker, by Richard Nash, a charming con-man named Starbuck arrives in a drought-ridden western rural town in Depression era America – and promises to bring rain in exchange for $100. The metaphor of Starbuck is alive and well in the 21st century. The difference however is that rain has been replaced with jobs and prosperity. And Starbuck has been replaced by big box retailer. They role into communities throughout the country with their caravans of snake oil promises and roll out with hundreds of thousands (if not millions) in tax and real estate concessions. However, the jobs turn out to be part-time minimum wage and the prosperity is disguised as instruction in getting food stamps.

A Civic Economics study from 2007 showed the state of Arizona’s then-$5 million contract with OfficeMax was causing the state to lose $500,000 per year in economic leakage. The methodology shows OfficeMax did not offer 62 percent of their employees any health-care benefits, costing Arizona taxpayers significant money to support them through the state’s health-care plan, which drains the economy.

BOSSIER CITY, LA – When Bill Winkler opened his small archery shop, he was prepared to compete against businesses large and small – but not against a government-financed competitor. “The day Bass Pro opened here in Bossier, the number of arrows I sold dropped off by 50 percent,” says Winkler.

A Bass Pro Shop opened in Bossier City in 2005 after city officials promised to give the retailer $38 million to pay for the construction of the 106,000-square-foot store in this Red River community. Such deals are commonplace.

Cabelas

Both Bass Pro Shops and its archrival, Cabela’s, sell hunting and fishing gear in cathedral-like stores featuring taxidermied wildlife, gigantic fresh-water aquarium exhibits and elaborate outdoor reproductions within the stores. The stores are billed as job generators by both companies when they are fishing for development dollars. But the firms’ economic benefits are minimal and costs to taxpayers are great.

An exhaustive investigation conducted by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity found that the two competing firms together have received or are promised more than $2.2 billion from American taxpayers over the past 15 years.

Retail is not economic development. People don’t suddenly have more money to spend on hip waders because a new Bass Pro or Cabela’s comes to town,” says Greg Leroy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a non-partisan economic development watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.

All that happens is that money spent at local mom and pop retailers shifts to these big box retailers. When government gives these big box stores tax dollars … they are effectively picking who the winners and losers are going to be.”

City and county officials are vastly overmatched in this game of sleight of hand. All they can see is the land of Oz, not the price to be paid getting there or the tactics of the ones behind the curtain. So when some politician, left or right, points to the supposed needed support of some government intervention (a regulation, a mandate, a subsidy or a tax break), they have created an alliance with big business. And unfortunately by default, they’ve made their enemy free-enterprise and our local Main Street entrepreneurs.

This is where you need to understand who your community really is. It’s not your Wal-Mart, it’s not your Target, it’s not your corporate owned McDonalds and it’s not the big box store down the street. They may be in your neighborhood … but they’re not your neighbors – they are not your community!

These faceless corporations are here to take – to take your money, to take the life blood out of the locally owned firms who are your community. The more you give them – the less you have to give to those businesses that really matter, your neighbors – your real community.

Four years ago, September, 2011 – I visited my home town, Minot, North Dakota. Earlier in the year, Minot was devastated by a “once in a century” flood … a flood that caused the evacuation and of one-third of its population and the destruction of countless home and businesses. I went back with my friend Sean Key to attend a benefit relief concert put on by the Black Eyed Peas. The B.E.P. had never even been to Minot, yet they raised nearly $2 million for the victims.

????????????

Surrounding the stage, were the logos of the various businesses that contributed their time, effort and money to the relief efforts. Of these sponsors – all were local. None of them were national, even though many had presence in the town. There’s a Walmart in Minot. There’s a Target in Minot, and the there’s three McDonalds. But only the local businesses gave their time, their effort and resources.

Inequality isn’t a problem of the size of the pie

Much has been said about the unprecedented inequality we face in America, for good reason. Since the recession of 2008 virtually all economic recovery has been usurped by the top 1% and mega-corporations they represent. The rest of us are in virtually the same place as we were six years ago. Unemployment may be lower, but underemployment is higher and earning are frozen in time.

There’s not a lack of money in America. It’s going to wrong the places, accumulating (with no outflow) like those pools of stagnant water in your backyard that breed mosquitos. Any time you patronize a national retailer over a locally owned business, you are sending money out of your community. You are sending money to offshore accounts, to bloated institutions or worse yet greedy, self-serving CEOs. Every time you use Bank of America over your local credit union, or Home Depot over your local hardware store … you are killing your community, it’s losing a little bit of what makes it different – what makes it what it is.

40% to 50% percent of each dollar spent at a locally owned business stays in the community. Yet only 15% percent does with a large corporate entity, like Walmart, Target or Home Depot. What does that tell you! That’s 30% that could go to local parks or local business owners that would in turn spend it at other local business owners and on and on.

Will you let your community be just another mile marker on the interstate highway of sameness

There’s more to it than just economics though. Inside you there’s a part of your community. It’s what makes you what you are. The people, the experiences you had grabbing your morning coffee at the local coffee shop. It’s that antique table in your kitchen you bought at the second-hand store on Main Street. They’re part of who you are. It’s memories. What type of memories do you conjure up from a box store? Do you want to want your defacto town square, the place where your community congregates be Wal-Mart? Believe it or not, in much of rural America, that is exactly becoming the case.

This phenomenon is not happening by accident. These corporate retail behemoths recognize this is the ultimate market position. Not only do they crowd out smaller competition, they become a community’s sociological hub. And these hubs they create will not care about your town’s culture, its history and least of all – what’s made it different. On the contrary, your town will be made up of the same – the same as all the other towns and cities up and down the interstate … indistinguishable from each other except a different number on a mile marker.

Those communities that choose not arm themselves with the tools of grass-roots local sustainability will be left in the wake of big box store corporate boom and abandonment. Those communities still ‘wowed’ by the lies of Wall Street and the erroneous promises they make will be left to scrape for the economic and intellectual crumbs they feel benevolent enough to leave behind as they march from neighborhood to neighborhood re-enacting Sherman’s insidious Civil War ‘March to the Sea.’ Community 3.0 is my idea of the toolbox that I believe can provide the ammunition for us locals to fight back.

Interstate highway

Do you want your community to be one ‘off the interstate,’ creating memories that’ll make you smile when you’re sitting on your porch years down the road. Or do you want it to be yet just another mile marker of sameness.

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I invite you to travel with me on my journey, “On the Road to Your Community’s Perfect World,” as I attempt to articulate my vision of how we can create better, more inclusive, unique communities as the solution to our society’s pressing issues – both problems and opportunities. Consider each week’s post a mile marker (MM) of sorts, a cerebral off ramp, taking a you little further down this road until sometime in September when we’ll reach … well you can decide what we’ve reached for yourself. Also please subscribe so you can receive the weekly installments as they come out.

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You can follow me on Twitter at @clayforsberg and on Google+