Columbia businesses mull new alliance

Monday, June 28, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:48 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Take a stroll down Ninth Street and discover the unique atmosphere that characterizes Columbia.

Popular books attract passers-by to the windows of Columbia Books and the Ninth Street Bookstore. A white marquee’s bold, black letters advertise upcoming shows at the Missouri Theatre. The buzzing of shears escapes the front door of the Tiger Barber Shop. Customers file in and out of the popular Booches Billiard Hall. The smell of freshly brewed coffee mingles with the summer air beneath the green awning of Lakota Coffee Co.

Local, independent shops and cafés line downtown streets. But the owners of some of these independent businesses worry that the atmosphere created by Columbia’s local stores will be displaced by corporate chains. As a result, several Columbia shop owners hope to form an independent business alliance that would strive to improve business and advertising for local stores.

Businesses hope to join to promote common interests

“We developed the idea out of concern about the economy promoting corporate business, not independent business,” said Leigh Lockhart, owner of Main Squeeze. “We need to band together to achieve common goals, primarily to increase business but also to educate people on why it is important to shop locally.”

If formed, the Columbia Independent Business Alliance would be modeled after members of the American Independent Business Alliance.

The first IBA formed in 1998 as a result of a meeting between a local activist and a bookstore owner in Boulder, Colo. Alliance members were disgusted with chain proliferation. They decided to educate the community on the importance of local businesses and to work with the local government to strengthen the voice of independent business owners, said Jennifer Rockne, director of American Independent Business Alliance.

“An independent business alliance is a creative way for smaller businesses to advertise,” said Lisa Bartlett, owner of the Absolute Vintage fashion and home accessories store. “We need to survive together instead of being competitive with each other.”

Local businesses support local communities

Lockhart said the purchase of products from Main Squeeze, such as blueberries, tempeh or cheeses, in turn supports local farmers. According to the New Rules Project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, local businesses generate at least three times the local economic return that chain businesses do.

Researchers for the New Rules Project also report that more than 40 percent of independent bookstores have had to close their doors as and chain stores such as Barnes and Noble expand across the market.

Lisa Bartlett, owner of the Absolute Vintage fashion and home accessories store, and Jessie Lawson and Lisa Suits, owners of The Arsenic Leopard, a shop that features locally crafted art and gifts, are also interested in forming the alliance.

“The city wants this vibrant downtown area, the District. But they really need to put their money where their mouth is,” Lawson said. “Independent merchants need affordable retail space. The independent businesses downtown have a hard time competing with the wealth that corporate chains have.”

Market may dictate which stores open downtown

But Carrie Gartner, executive director of the Downtown Business Associations, said she doesn’t see a big battle brewing between independent and corporate businesses.

Local shops such as LuLu’s Repose, a new bath and body shop, and franchises such as Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwich Shop, co-exist successfully downtown, Gartner said.

“We have a lot of great retail space open right now, and its availability just depends on the market. It’s very cyclical,” Gartner said. “We’re looking for businesses that fit the eclectic nature and feel of the District, whether they be corporate or independent.”.

Available space downtown is listed, along with size and contact information, on the “Discover the District” Web site,

Consultants soon will present plans involving the beautification and development of Eighth Street to the Avenue of the Columns Committee. Gartner said one goal of this development will be to find the right people to build in empty lots.

Growing interest in independent business associations

Columbians are not the only business owners interested in starting an IBA. The AMIBA, now consists of nine official IBAs based out of cities large and small, including St. Louis. Many more are being developed.

“Each community is so different and has very different needs,” Rockne said. “Some want advocacy improvements, some want a strong voice. We leave it very much up to the group. We are just a resource hub for them with program and ad design ideas.”

An IBA membership allows local businesses to increase visibility in the community while spending less, Rockne said. For example, the Boulder IBA created a coffee cup for affiliated cafés that advertised the alliance and its message.

As part of a national initiative to recognize independent businesses, AMIBA and independent business owners and employees around the country will be celebrating “Independents Week” from July 1 through July 7.

“Local businesses are the backbone of our community,” Rockne said. “We are celebrating the spirit of entrepreneurship.”

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