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Local first conference comes to Charleston

Brings national spotlight to area's small businesses

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Bobby Hendricks spent last week traveling through the South, from Alabama to Atlanta, learning from other businesses and sharing his own product, gRAWnola, a raw cereal and breakfast bar without gluten, dairy, soy, and peanuts produced in Hanahan.

Hendricks has been preaching the good word about community gardens and healthy, locally grown products. And he's always happy to share what he's learned.

"I've always been connecting people and pushing people in the right direction," he says.

This weekend, other small community business owners from across the country will come to Charleston to exchange their best ideas for a thriving local economy at the annual conference of the Businesses Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), May 21-23, mostly on the College of Charleston campus.

The conference is expected to help show entrepreneurs how to thrive by partnering with their neighbors, says Michelle Long, BALLE's executive director.

"It's building the long-term health and wealth of a community by thinking local first," she says.

It's also an opportunity to show off Lowcountry Local First (LLF), Charleston's nonprofit advocate for supporting small community businesses. The group has grown in the past three years to include more than 300 small business owners, like Hendricks, who are anxious to share their experience.

"I'm looking forward to finding ways I can help," he says.

LLF Executive Director Jamee Halee says the conference is an opportunity to share successes.

"It's been really inspiring," she says. "You get to look at how we can take some of those examples and implement them here."

LLF's "10 Percent Shift" campaign (highlighting the value of keeping money in the community) was inspired by a BALLE conference, as well as the organization's successful local independent business directory.

And the conference is also a chance to share what Charleston has done to support local business. Halee says LLF successes are due to excited members like Hendricks.

"It's not that I'm out there introducing people," she says. "There's just a great sense among these businesses. They say, 'We're in this together. Let's help each other.'"

Upcoming Event Wednesday Night

There are extra opportunities for local business owners to take advantage of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies conference. Michael Shuman, BALLE's research and economic development director and author of The Small-Mart Revolution, will give a lecture called "Charleston First: Local Stimulus Worthy of the Name." The event is at 6 p.m., Wed. May 19 at the American Theater, 446 King St. It is free to Lowcountry Local First members and $5 for non-members. A book signing will follow the lecture at Blue Bicycle Books, 420 King St.

Local business owners can also get a reduced rate on the conference registration fee, including a special daily rate. For more info, visit livingeconomies.org.

Sessions for this year's three-day conference will focus on specific problem areas for small businesses owners. These days, that's about finding money to get up and running or to keep the doors open through tough times.

"It's hard to find investors who have capital and are patient with their capital," Long says.

Participants will learn about attracting investors and local financing options as well as creative proposals, like a local exchange.

"We can't invest in local businesses like we can with a mutual fund," Long says. "We're trying to change that with a local exchange."

The conference will highlight specific ways to keep more money in the local economy, including locally produced food and manufacturing products. One session focuses on North Carolina cotton farmers and neighboring green T-shirt and fabric businesses. The importance of supporting the local arts community will also get some attention with panels like "Arts as Economic Renewal."

"It's about all of these things coming together," Long says.

There's also a lot of attention this year on green jobs and sustainability, a growing priority in the Lowcountry.

"How can we reinvigorate every sector of our economy: construction, agriculture, retail, energy? It's with green jobs," Long says.

Local businesses have a competitive advantage in the green market because they're nimbler and have an easier time making changes.

The conference will also provide a spotlight on Charleston's local businesses, including the local brewers at COAST, sustainable builder Meadors Construction, and chef Sean Brock's Farm-to-Table program.

"When we go somewhere, people want to see what's happening in that community," Long says.

LLF has a lot of success to show off too. Charleston's program is the only one in South Carolina and likely the largest in the Southeast. Aside from the annual directory, which Halee refers to as "our Bible," the group also produced a Farm Fresh Food Guide to connect local farmers to the restaurant community. LLF's Growing New Farmers program is mentoring the next generation of those not just living off the land, but making a living off of the land. Local First also started an online market to help chefs purchase the farmers' products.

LLF is looking to expand the Growing New Farmers program, hoping to begin partnering with an under-served community that could take advantage of the fresh produce. And it's planning to partner with Clemson for a fast-track course for food entrepreneurs.

"We're not just teaching them about what to do on the farm, but we're giving them the skills they need to be a good business person," Halee says. Students will learn how to create a business plan and be paired with a mentor. "The course will be open to anyone who wants to take it — whether you want to be a cheese maker or go into catering."

And leaders are continuing to work with municipalities to develop government purchasing programs that recognize the benefit of supporting local businesses, as well as coordinating with larger businesses to show the wealth of available local suppliers.

LLF would also like to create a business incubator.

"One of the things that has happened as the economy has shifted is that we have more people who are becoming entrepreneurs, whether by choice or because they lost their job," Halee says. The incubator would give them the resources (i.e.: space, logistics) to get started. "Then we start filling up those empty spaces we see along King Street."

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