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StayLocal.org maps the frontline in the fight to save New Orleans businesses.

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When Erin Peacock began researching merchandise to stock her new day spa Lux, her list of top choices quickly turned up a lot of home cooking.

For starters, she learned that one of her favorite skin-care products, Agera, comes from an Elmwood-based company and that the Queen B line of soaps and bath salts she likes so much is made by a small New Orleans firm. So she decided local products would be a calling card of Lux, which opened in Faubourg St. John in July.

"It turns out that people absolutely love that local angle," Peacock says. "When they find out something here is a New Orleans product, it almost brings a tear to their eye."

If buying local can be a rewarding experience for consumers, it is an essential lifeline for most locally-owned businesses, especially in the post-Katrina economy. Making it easier for the two to find one another is the aim of a new campaign from Stay Local, the economic development program of the local advocacy group the Urban Conservancy.

The campaign is based around the Web site www.staylocal.org (617-6618), which provides a free directory of locally-owned businesses of all sizes, ways for consumers and other businesses to search for them by name, product, service or neighborhood and other resources.

The site is essentially a collective marketing effort, says program coordinator Dana Eness, based on the equation that when local consumers patronize local businesses, more of their money stays within the community, where it can do the most good for everyone there.

"We're providing it as a community service. Any locally owned business can join for free," says Eness.

To get listed on the Web site, a business need only visit http://staylocal.org/add/ and enter its information, which Stay Local confirms independently. Launched late in August, the listings already run the gamut from retail shops and restaurants to accounting firms, auto repair shops and artists.

"We're not talking about small or big (businesses), we're talking about local businesses," says Geoff Coats, a local designer and founder of Stay Local's parent organization, the Urban Conservancy. "This is designed for people who consciously want the dollars they spend to go to their neighbors."

The nonprofit Urban Conservancy was formed in 2001 in response to the growing number of big box-style corporate retailers arriving in New Orleans. The group believes that supporting local businesses and building ways for them to sustain themselves is akin to supporting New Orleans' unique culture.

"Every corporation that comes to town looking for a tax break trumpets the 235 jobs they will be creating," says Coats. "What they don't mention is that the creation of their 235 jobs will result in a loss of, say, 260 other jobs from the locals they compete against. That kind of short-term economic policy creates good headlines and photo ops for politicians but it isn't sustainable. These corporations can leave whenever the mood strikes them, but a local business is tied to the area and will fight for it in hard times because it is part of the community."

The Web site is the latest and most visible campaign from the Stay Local project, which started in 2003 with a publicity push encouraging people to spend at least 25 percent of their holiday shopping budgets at local businesses. A next phase of the project will include printed guides to neighborhood businesses and other outreach methods that don't rely on Internet access.

The support comes at a time when many of the area's small businesses are reeling from the long reach of Hurricane Katrina. The city estimates that some 95 percent of businesses in New Orleans before Katrina employed fewer than 100 people, but a recent study by Louisiana State University reported that more than half of those small businesses have not reopened since the storm.

Even businesses that did not face catastrophic damage from the levee failures have in many cases had to contend with a diminished customer base, a scarcity of employees and the battles for insurance or federal assistance with which residents are all too familiar.

"We were planning this for a while, in a somewhat different form with memberships," says Eness. "But now (after the storm) we decided to open it to anyone since there is a real urgency for us to get this out there and build a critical mass. Local businesses are really part of what makes New Orleans special, and I think that was driven home right after the storm when we realized some places we loved could be gone -- that we might have gone there for the last time."

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