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Going Local

Fundraising events are supposed to do just that—raise funds. But when a fundraiser combines the best of a community’s unique character—local businesses, local bands, local food, and local beverages—and sets it amid the intriguing architecture of Grand Rapids’ Heartside neighborhood, it does a lot more than just raise money.

The third annual Local First Street Party held on June 24 benefited Local First, a non-profit that supports locally owned businesses, farms, and non-profits through initiatives focused on the triple bottom line: economic prosperity, environmental sustainability, and social responsibility.

Weston Street in front of Bistro Bella Vita, and the nearby Commerce Realty parking lot, was the bustling center of commerce where thirty-four locally owned businesses—florists, gourmet foods markets, boutiques of sustainably-manufactured clothing, a chocolatier, and others—showcased their wares under tents and market umbrellas. Partygoers munched a variety of gourmet fare, including vegetarian victuals masterminded by the chefs from Bistro Bella Vita; quaffed any of four local beers created by Grand Rapids’ own Founder’s Brewing Company; and sipped the fermented fruits of one of West Michigan’s premier vineyards, Chateau de Leelanau.

Proceeds from food and beverage sales went to Local First, but, as I said, the Street Party did more than just raise money—it brought business into one of the neighborhoods targeted by the City of Grand Rapids for economic development.

“By having the Street Party in the Heartside district, we’re not only highlighting a really cool neighborhood,” said Ellie Frey, executive director of Local First. “We’re getting people downtown. Each of the last two years we’ve drawn about 1200 people, and we’re getting them to explore a new neighborhood and patronize the surrounding businesses. We’re getting people to feel good about their city. That means they’re going to talk it up, they’re going to bring more people here through tourism or they’ll bring friends back, and they’ll stay here themselves.”

A Jumping Jamboree
Half a dozen local poets kicked off the day’s entertainment in the first ever Local First Poetry Slam with Greg Bliss. An eclectic mix of musical entertainment kept the mood hopping all day with DJ Mosaic, Mailboxes and the Blue Machine, D-Jade, Lynn Thompson, and the Latin-funk grooves of Cabildo and La Famiglia. WGRD broadcast live remotes for those who couldn’t make it downtown.

Family-friendly activities included Dee Jay the Clown, who freely distributed his special balloon hat and animal creations to kids of all ages. Easely Art helped children, parents, and grandparents create artistic masterpieces to take home.

“We had kids that sat for four hours and built the most amazing sculptures out of different wood and metal shapes,” said Kirsten DelVecchio, owner of Easely Art. “This was our first event with Local First and I thought it was fabulous.”

Christopher Bearss, a Street Party volunteer said, “I think people liked the thought of enjoying an adult beverage at a free concert in the streets of Grand Rapids.”

Bearss took his twelve-year-old son, Keyllan, and his son’s friend, AJ, to hear the music. While they were there, Bearss passed the torch of volunteerism to the boys by letting them help sell food tickets. “The boys had a riot. It was really upbeat. We saw Cabildo play, and it was great entertainment.”

The Power of a Dollar Spent Locally
Local First works with local businesses to help them become more sustainable, to better educate them about running a business, and to show them how to be more competitive.

“We help locally owned businesses stay in business,” Ellie Frey said. “We have monthly events where we provide educational topics relevant to business owners—whether it’s learning how to network or market effectively, or understanding the Local First campaign on a greater level—we pick topics our members are interested in and bring in local speakers who are experts in those topics.”

The organization also educates consumers on the impact each locally spent dollar has on the economy. According to a 2004 study of businesses in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago's north side, spending at locally owned businesses generates 68 percent more local economic impact per square foot than spending at chain stores. That means that every $100 spent at an independent business creates an amazing $68 of additional local economic activity, compared to only $43 created by chain or “big box” stores.

The Local Connection
In addition to the vendors who had booths at the Street Fair, twenty-nine local businesses showed their support for Local First by reaching into their own pockets to sponsor the event. Among them were the title sponsors, Dan Pfeiffer Automotive Group and G. B. Russo & Son International Grocery.

“It warms the cockles of your heart to think that people enjoy dealing with local people,” said Dan Pfeiffer, owner of Pfeiffer Automotive Group, “rather than looking up something on the computer, and then buying it because it costs five cents less. It’s the whole idea of making people aware of products made locally and available locally.”

John Russo, of G. B. Russo & Son, knows firsthand the impact the local consumer has on his business. “Shopping locally keeps the money here. We have a state that’s in horrible financial condition, but people are running across state lines to buy alcohol at tax-free rates. The business and taxes they take out of the state hurt our local economy.”

While Local First helps keep the local economy moving, they also did their part at the Street Party to keep the locals moving. By the time the last band took the stage, partygoers were on their feet, dancing wherever they could find the space, and cheering the band on until the 10 PM closing time.

According to Ellie Frey, “It ended too soon.”

All Photographs Copyright John Wandas/Tiberius Images

Images top to bottom:

Local First Executive Director, Ellie Frey, discusses the benefits of Local First

Disc Jockey D-Jade mixes the evening's entertainment

The crow at the Local First Street Party

Kristy Kerr of Fish Ladder, Inc enjoys the early hours of the Local First Street Party

The line for beverages.  Drinks were sponsored by Second Story Properties

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