Fighting the Local Curse of Bigness: A Case for Store Size Caps

imageWhat I loved about Northwest Hardware in Austin, Texas was the phenomenal customer service. Every time I went in, someone would talk to me in detail about my project or problem and steer me in the right direction, even if their solution was less expensive than what I was originally thinking. Sadly, we stopped by a few weeks ago only to discover that it had recently closed.  The loss felt strangely close to me. After all, as a consumer I’d like to be able to shop with my values of supporting small and independent businesses that anchor the local community. Yet with the disappearance of stores that provide this option, I find myself pushed into a handful of large, consolidated big box options that lack the intimacy of a community shopping experience. Continue reading

Redefining Success in Our Economy

imageBy all accounts the famed basketball coach John Wooden is one of the most successful in the history of the game. He boasts an all-time winning percentage of over .800 (620-147), and won an incredible 10 national championships over a twelve year period (from 1963-1975), which included four perfect seasons (1964, 1967, 1972, and 1973) and an 88 game winning streak. Despite all his victories however, a deeper look into Coach Wooden’s philosophy reveals that winning was something he actually never talked about, as he did not believe that success should be judged by comparison with anyone else. Continue reading

Growing Deep

imageThe unique flavor of local businesses is as beautiful as it is important, helping to make each place special and combating the spread of “Anywhere, USA” towns. Yet one thing that has perplexed me is how do these same businesses retain their local image in the face of success? Isn’t expansion and the franchising of stores the logical next step?

Well, I recently discovered that growing deep in place can be an alternative to growing broadly. Here are two great examples of this concept: Continue reading

A Slow Money Economy

Sandbox turtleThis past weekend, Paula, the baby and I took a roadtrip from Austin to Dallas along Interstate-35. Along that drive I was struck by the number of chain and franchise restaurants that lined the highway. Where were the local businesses? Why wasn’t there a better mix of both local and national dining options? Continue reading

An Economy That Works for Everyone

I was touched today by a brief documentary that appeared in the New York Times called “Hotel 22” by Elizabeth Ho. This eight minute video documented the use of a 24-hour bus route by the homeless of Silicon Valley to get some temporary shelter and relief from the streets.  In watching the documentary, I kept thinking that our economy must do better for the least among us, for those who may not be W-2 employable. Why do people without money or the means or opportunity to make money have to live like this? Continue reading

A Field Trip to the Schumacher Center for a New Economics

imageIn his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, E.F. Schumacher challenges our economic assumptions that more is better and bigger is more efficient. It has now been 42 years since Schumacher wrote his book and while there’s increased awareness of some of the issues he raised – inequality and environmental degradation among them – there seems to be no indication that these trends are going to reverse themselves anytime soon. To say that there’s still plenty of work to do is an understatement. Fortunately, there are some amazing people leading the way.

While in Connecticut visiting my family for the Christmas holiday, we took an economic pilgrimage to the nearby Schumacher Center for a New Economics located in the Berkshire Mountains. Continue reading

The Commerce Clause & the Ban on Economic Protectionism

imageA few weeks ago I posted an article about the efforts of small towns to protect their unique character and resist becoming another generic “Anywhere, USA.”  This is no small feat, in large part because the courts have said that it’s a violation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause for local municipalities to protect their local businesses against non-local competition.  This ruling by the court has been a pebble in my shoe ever since I came across it because the wording of the Commerce Clause itself – that Congress has the power “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes” – does not mention economic protectionism.  Given the far-reaching effects on local economies, I had to wonder how this interpretation came to be. Continue reading

Formula Business Restrictions & The Fight Against Cookie Cutter Places

imageWhen Paula and I travel, one of our favorite things to do is to search out unique places of character. Now there are many factors that go into making a place unique and special, but the one most immediately obvious to us is the clustering of small, one-of-a-kind locally owned businesses within a walkable area. Here in Central Texas, towns such as Fredericksburg and Wimberley are so successful with this design that they are consistently listed as top day-trip tourist destinations, well worth the hour long trip it takes us in Austin to get there and linger for a day. These places offer a stark contrast to the collections of chain stores and big box developments which, by their very nature, turn any location into an Anywhere, USA. Continue reading

Local Currency In Practice

A few weeks ago, I wrote the economic case for local currency as a way to keep money circulating within the local economy and supporting locally owned businesses.  While printing your own money might seem like an improbable solution for most cities, a handful of communities have actually put it into practice. Continue reading

The Body & Soul of Great Places

family in Downtown LittletonOne of the most interesting things I ever picked up in a theology class is that ghosts and zombies are opposites. As human beings, we are made up of body (the physical form that makes us visible to the world) and soul (the essence that animates and moves us). So united are these natures that the idea of separating them is actually frightening; zombie movies illustrate the effects of animating corpses without souls, and ghost movies reflect what happens when our spirit or essence floats around without the body.  Neither result is appealing. That’s because these two natures are interconnected in ways that we can’t even imagine. In a similar way, we can think about cities as having a body (the physical form and built environment) and a soul (the people and actions that give a city its life and energy).  Just as in the case of human beings, each part is necessary and it is the combination of the two that creates a great place. Continue reading