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Keeping it local isn't simple

This newspaper has long championed the cause of encouraging local citizens to shop at local businesses. It’s a message and a practice we believe in, and we’ll continue to preach it, as well as support it by giving local businesses cost-effective advertising options that target the local shoppers they want.

We’re pleased to see a new initiative, “Keep it Local Marion,” taking off, spearheaded by Marion economic development director Terry Jones. Other rural cities and counties with organized “shop at home” programs have had success in keeping and growing their customer bases, and a focused program here is long overdue. While Jones assures us, and we believe, that the program isn’t “anti-Wal-Mart,” there’s little question the big box giant’s upcoming entry into the local market has motivated county businesses and economic developers to re-double their efforts to retain local market shares.

The new program begs the question, however, of how businesses, chambers of commerce, and local and county governments should work together to strengthen the county’s economy. It’s a question needing a collective solution.

We’re glad Jones has taken the initiative with a social media site and reportedly an upcoming web site, but we’re left to wonder: what’s the role of the Marion Chamber of Commerce? The role of the chamber is, I’ve long assumed, to support and promote local businesses. If the sites Jones is developing are going to include promotions of local businesses, as he’s indicated, is that better done by businesses banding together for a common purpose, or by city government?

A Chamber-led “shop at home” initiative featuring member businesses would be added incentive for businesses to join, but undertaking the campaign may exceed the group’s capacity. The city has resources the Chamber doesn’t, but should tax dollars be used to promote individual businesses, or should it conduct a more generic “keep it local” campaign that emphasizes both shopping at home and providing resources to help businesses be competitive?

The renewed focus on “shop at home” is getting attention in all corners of the county, which adds another wrinkle to the question. Marion County has an economic development director, but there’s no formal group to build a collective vision or to drive a coordinated, countywide “shop at home” initiative.

Once upon a time, there was such a group, Marion County Economic Development Council, but bickering over strategic direction, by-laws, and town representation on the council in 2009 and 2010 led to the resignation of many town representatives. Marion County economic development director Teresa Huffman said she had “had enough,” and removed herself from the group. Since then, economic development efforts have been more isolated and fragmented, dependent on individuals to find reasons to collaborate.

It’s time to look at reconstituting MCEDC. Issues unresolved four years ago need to be tackled, and it won’t be easy, but such an effort can benefit from the current increased focus on supporting local businesses.

Marion County’s population has been declining, and projections for 2040 are that the number will drop below 10,000, and that the greatest loss of people will be among those of working age.

Holding on to what we have, and future growth, can happen if the county views itself as a 12,000-member community, and acts accordingly. A revitalized MCEDC with countywide vision and input would be a good start to making that happen.

— david colburn

Last modified Oct. 1, 2014

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