Buffalo groups seek ways to help local businesses
BUFFALO, New Yorks – Looking at the fancy metal bench outside of Ward Pinkel’s store, you might think the city has spent money to make Elmwood Avenue, a street lined with stores near downtown Buffalo, a nicer place to be.
“The city didn’t pay for any of that,” Ward said, while behind him one of his young staff rearranged dummies in the window of his fashion store, Urban Threads. “We did. We also paid for the lights on the trees and put them up ourselves,”
“If we waited for the city to do anything, I’d be up to here in leaves right,” he added, holding his arms out in front of him above his waist.
“Ward is really committed to keeping this place clean,” said Justin Azzarella, executive director of the Elmwood Village Association, which represents businesses and residents in the Elmwood district of the city. “He picks up trash from his home all the way to the store.”
(As an aside, Buffalo is full of model buffalos, which the city’s residents have adopted as their mascot. Ironically, the city is not named after this animal and there have never been any buffalo here. An urban myth has it that French explorers described the Niagara River here as a “beau fleuve” or beautiful river, which was then corrupted into Buffalo in English.)
The association has around 200 members and works to promote the interests of local business owners and residents alike. Many of the stores along here are in old homes and there is a real Main Street feel to the place. Almost all of them are locally owned and not part of chains.
Azzarella said that after 10 years of hard work, the district just had zoning laws passed by the city that prevent architecturally unappealing suburban style stores with large parking lots and help preserve the area’s appeal with its wide sidewalks to stroll down and go shopping.
Azzarella said that he is often asked why the street doesn’t have major chains like clothing retailer Gap.
“The problem with stores like that is that they are everywhere and if we had them here we’d look like anywhere else,” he said. “Plus the big chains are cutting back in this economy.”
“Our business owners are hurting, but no one has closed or cut back yet because this is their livelihood and their passion,” Azzarella added. “So I’m not sure that we really need them here.”
He said that by cooperating and not relying on the limited resources of Buffalo city hall, the district has managed to thrive.
“We’re all in this together,” he said.
Amy Kedron is also working to promote local businesses. She is the co-founder and director of Buffalo First, which sells books of coupons for local businesses.
Kedron is a former academic and has spent a lot of time thinking about what she does. A chart in her latest coupon book – she has the proofs with her when we meet – shows how for every $100 spent at a non locally-owned business, $57 leaves the community, whereas that figure is only $32 if you spend it at a locally-owned business.
“In a way I feel sorry for CEOs of big corporations,” she said. “They are legally obliged to maximize shareholder value and cannot do a lot for communities like this because they would be breaking the law.”
“We have forgotten in this country that there is so much more to capitalism than just the exchange of goods and services,” Kedron added. “It’s about community and local businesses are the best at building communities because their owners are in it to make a living, not a killing.”