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Outside-in business

When Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market closes at the end of the month, another chapter in rural America’s uneasy dance with corporate America will close with it.

Few folks understood the market for what it was — an experiment. Hillsboro, Rose Hill, Ellinwood, and others where Wal-Mart planted similar stores were guinea pigs in the multinational game of profit making.

Wal-Mart gambled on a new business model: small, convenience-oriented markets fueled by its buying power and distribution network. The experiment failed. The guinea pigs have been dismissed. For a corporation with sales that exceed the economies of all but 24 countries in the world, deciding to pull the plug was smart business.

It’s not the first time we’ve been dismissed to the chairs along the wall by a corporate dance partner, or like recently with ALCO/Duckwall, watch them disappear altogether. Heartland Foods wasn’t a local business, either.

We’ve been economically dependent on outsiders for goods for as long as we’ve had communities. For the better part of this county’s history, local entrepreneurs were our mediators with corporate America.

These entrepreneurs built local businesses, using their own capital and that of locally-owned banks, to bring wares made elsewhere to the county, and the profits stayed here. Shopping at home wasn’t a slogan, it was common practice. It was a comfortable country-style two-step. However, that two-step is increasingly out of step with today’s economy. Every downtown in the county speaks to the fact that the dance has changed, and so have the partners.

Now we tango, oft times awkwardly, with partners whose businesses, products, and cash live elsewhere. Local independence has been supplanted by regional, state, national, and global interdependence.

“Outsiders” have come to the dance, and they’re here to stay as long as it makes sense for them to do so. They sell to us what they know we’ll buy locally — gasoline, groceries, farm implements, health care, and more. Like locally-based businesses, they provide jobs, generate sales tax revenue, and pay taxes. Outsiders are integral to our lifestyle, and essential for any significant future growth.

We’re rightfully grateful to have so many locally-owned businesses that are successful — even more so to have ones that generously give back to their communities. Some of them have been around a long time, others are new; we hope all continue to find Marion County a great place to do business.

Still, we want more, and for that we have to be open to, even seek out, new dance partners from the outside.

In many cases, those potential dance partners will choose us, not the other way around. For example, Dollar General didn’t put a new store in Marion because we still longed for a replacement for Duckwall; it’s here because they believe they can make a profit.

Retail used to be something we kept mostly in-house with locally-owned businesses. For today’s dance, we also have to come dressed as a “suitable target market.”

Meanwhile, we have plenty of work to do to attract two other groups of outsiders we seem to want: tourists and small businesses with products to sell elsewhere. Significant economic growth in these areas will require coordinated professional expertise, targeted marketing, and investment beyond what we’ve seen marshaled thus far. It remains to be seen if we have the collective ability to achieve that.

There’s no argument that overall, our county is challenged when it comes to economic growth. But there’s also no argument that there’s a way out of it, if along with the two-step, we become experts in the tango. To thrive and grow, we don’t have any other choice.

— DAVID COLBURN

Last modified Jan. 20, 2016

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