Local business is good business
Thinking twice about where our dollars go, not over-thought regulations, can help local shops thrive.

Jonathan Labonte
Steps Forward

With the charm that makes small towns in Maine special places to live in and visit, downtown Livermore Falls celebrated the grand opening of a new bakery last week. 
There was no flashy press corps, no giant gold scissors, and no high profile politicians there to pose for the cameras as they plot their next campaign.
But there were, at the opening of Butter Cookies on Depot Street, local volunteers and friends and champions of that community and the fulfillment of a dream for one of its residents.
The question that may overshadow the joy of that day for this small business, and for many specialty businesses in Maine’s downtowns, will be how to build and sustain a customer base amidst the competition from much larger national businesses with sales volumes that keep prices lower in most instances.
The American consumer is an interesting animal. Many of us root for the underdog and have warm recollections of a time when the family down the road owned the hardware store or pharmacy and the local butcher knew us by our first name. But when push comes to shove, and we need to vote with our dollars, the “drive to” convenience of Goliath and his lower prices keeps the small guy teetering on the brink.
This creates quite the dilemma. If communities truly want to see locally-owned businesses thrive, finding a means to change that paradigm is not an easy challenge to overcome.
The plotting of coastal communities, in recent years, to ban certain stores through restrictions on development locations and size is one approach. In fact, that regulatory approach has bubbled its way up to the state level where projects over a certain size will require a detailed study of how a new store will impact the community.
Regulations are only one angle, though, to advance the idea of creating a sustainable environment for small, niche shops.
Trying to create rules to stop businesses from coming won’t change the culture of voting with our dollars. There needs to be a new approach that encourages us to think about what our dollars can do, when we invest them in a product or service.
At the grand opening last week, it was more than just free samples of very good desserts; it became a community discussion of how to make this new shop part of the community. Would wifi access to encourage people to stop in to check e-mail and maybe grab a coffee? It was shared that some local groups may hold discussions in this space to increase foot traffic. And some local food businesses inquired about how to make those desserts part of their menu.
No suggestions were made on how to regulate keeping the competition at bay, it was all conversation about how to connect local people to these products.
Time will tell if the people of Livermore Falls will cast enough votes  to keep this new business alive, but the model is out there. Perhaps many of us, wanting some of that charm to return to the communities we grew up in or live in now, will think twice about where our dollars go.

Jonathan LaBonte, of New Auburn, is a columnist for the Sun Journal and an Androscoggin County Commissioner. E-mail: jlabonte08@gmail.com.

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