Still others are the half-baked plans of municipal officials casting about for some way to stop the steep drop in sales tax revenue.
Many of these Astroturf campaigns are modeled directly on grassroots initiatives. "They copy our language and tactics," said Michelle Long, board president of the San Franciscobased Business Alliance for Local Living Economies and executive director of Sustainable Connections, a seven-year-old coalition of 600 independent businesses in northwest Washington state that runs a very visible and according to market research very successful local-first program. "I get calls from chambers and other groups who say, 'We want to do what you are doing.' It took me a while to realize that what they had in mind was not what we do. Once I realized, I started asking them, 'What do you mean by local?' "
Examples abound. In Northern California, the Arcata Chamber of Commerce is producing "Shop Local" ads that look similar to the Humboldt County Independent Business Alliance's "Go Local" ads, except they feature both independents and chains. Spokane's "Buy Local" program, started by the chamber, is open to any business in town, including big-box stores. Log on to the "Buy Local" Web site created by the chamber in Chapel Hill, N.C., and you will find Wal-Mart among the listings.
But there's a huge difference even on strictly economic grounds between shopping at a local chain store and a locally owned store. Studies have shown that $45 of every $100 spent at locally owned stores stays in the community, helping other local businesses and supporting government services, whereas only about $13 of every $100 spent in chain stores remains local.
When the city of Santa Fe, N.M., decided to launch a campaign to encourage people to shop locally, the Santa Fe Alliance, a coalition of more than 500 locally owned businesses that has been running a buy-local initiative for several years, signed on. At the kickoff in March, the alliance's director, Vicki Pozzebon, emphasized the economic impact of shopping at a locally owned business versus a chain.
"After that, the city asked me not to push the $45 versus $13, but just say 'local.' " Pozzebon said.
The city's message, according to Kate Noble, a city staffer who runs the program, is that shopping at Wal-Mart is fine, as long as it's not Walmart.com. But Pozzebon said, "It has only diluted our message and confused people."
These sales taxdriven campaigns may well be doing more harm to local economies than good, according to Jeff Milchen, co-founder of the American Independent Business Alliance. "If you encourage people to shop at a big-box store that takes sales away from an independent business, you're just funneling more dollars out of town."
The irony of trying to solve declining city revenue by trying to get people to shop at the local mall is that the mall itself may be the problem. While many California cities are facing budget cuts and even bankruptcy, Berkeley has managed to post a small increase in revenue. Part of the reason, according to city officials, is that Berkeley has more or less said no to chains and is instead a city of locally owned businesses that primarily serve local residents. That creates a much more stable revenue base. Berkeley hasn't benefited from the temporary boom that a new regional mall might create, but neither has it gone bust.
Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher with the New Rules Project (www.newrules.org) and author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses (Beacon, 2006). This story was commissioned by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN), of which the Guardian is a member, and is also running in other AAN papers this month.