When Guy Bazzani, local developer and president of Bazzani Associates, started Local First in 2002, his goal was to keep big box chain stores from taking over Grand Rapids.
“I visit a lot of communities that have rebuilt themselves … and here come these chain stores that are designed to fit in these little storefronts that look like local companies but aren’t, and I was concerned about what happens if they move in,” said Bazzani.
“What happens to our local community if chain stores move in and virtually overtake our community? What would it feel like? We’d virtually be back to the homogenized suburban model of everybody’s got an Applebee’s. Well, I want Marie Catrib’s. I want Winchester.”
The Local First organization was first called BALLE — Business Alliance for Local Living Economies — but changed its name in 2003. By 2004, membership was at 35 and by 2008, membership had climbed to 350. This year membership has seen a significant jump and has surpassed the 500 mark: It currently has 570 members.
“We’ve seen growth completely opposite of the recession, and we continue to grow. We believe people are finally starting to get it: that if you want a great restaurant and a great locally owned business — you’ve got to vote with your dollars,” Bazzani said.
“When you see your neighbors going out of business, you go, ‘Why did that happen?’ It is extremely important that we take this hint and continue to support each other first. How much more sense can that make?”
Support is something that Grand Rapids Young Professionals knows quite a bit about, as well. GRYP is a nonprofit that combines social and professional networking, and educational and volunteering events for young professionals. This summer it has seen record growth and has hit the 2,000-member mark.
“Things have historically tended to slow down during the summer,” said Mandee Rick, president of GRYP and vice president and senior commercial banker at Huntington National Bank. “But we’re still growing probably at a rate of 50 to 75 people a month.”
The most popular event for GRYP is Unwind, which brings young professionals from all backgrounds together in a low-key atmosphere.
“We’re consistently getting new people attending Unwind, which is our monthly networking event,” she said. “I would say a good estimate would be 30 percent of those attendees are new every month. That’s where a lot of our growth comes from.”
GRYP hosts a plethora of other events and will host a brand new event in September called Get Involved. The organization plans to bring in 25 area nonprofits to educate members on ways to get involved.
While GRYP organizes and supports young local talent, Local First addresses the need to support local businesses, and as the Local First Web site shows, supporting local business can have a trickledown effect that can create jobs and wealth in the community.