Artvoice: Buffalo's #1 Newsweekly
Home Blogs Web Features Calendar Listings Artvoice TV Real Estate Classifieds Contact
Previous story: Festivals, Garden Walks, and Tours
Next story: Dispatches From Salt Lake: Duany Speaks on Buffalo

Investing in the Real Buffalo

A Buffalo Cash Mob in December 2012.

The country’s largest “local first” organization puts the spotlight on the Nickel City

Come next Wednesday, downtown Buffalo with fill with more than 600 eager, mostly out-of-state visitors in search of a “real” Rust Belt town.

Preservationists will gape at our grand hotels and declare the East Side full of diamonds in the rough. Entrepreneurs and investors will rub elbows with our developers, bankers, and restaurateurs, and enterprising urban farmers and environmentalists will trade tips with the growers and green builders on either side of Main Street.

Everyone will also notice how beautiful the weather is right now.

The crowd will attend the annual conference for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, known as BALLE, from June 12 to 14.

A network of 30,000 “local first” organizers representing 450,000 jobs across the country, BALLE works to boost local economies primarily by investing in independently owned businesses, which are at the heart of every community’s unique character and profitability.

Hosting a week-long schedule of pre-event workshops, nationally recognized speakers, city tours, field trips, and parties is Buffalo First, the local BALLE affiliate founded in 2006 by Amy Kedron, a University at Buffalo alumna.

left: Wicks, right: Bishop

BALLE itself was cofounded 12 years ago by Philadelphia restaurant owner Judy Wicks, who will speak in Buffalo on Tuesday evening.

Wicks, who has since retired from leading the organization, will visit Hallwalls next Tuesday as part of Buffalo First’s “Get the Rust Out” lecture series, one of several pre-conference events that includes tours of urban farms and community capital leadership meetings.

Wicks will read from her new book, Good Morning, Beautiful Business: The Unexpected Journey of an Activist Entrepreneur and Local-Economy Pioneer and is in town to help BALLE celebrate what everyday Buffalonians are doing to create a more satisfying and successful way of life.

A prime example is Silo City Rocks, a rock climbing center slated to open this summer; it’s a re-use project for one of the waterfront grain elevators. (Read more about it on page 12.) It’s boast-worthy—the world’s tallest man-made climbing wall—and hopefully will retain the soul and history of its former identity.

At its roots, localism about helping communities overcome economic challenges using the model of “community capital.” By growing and then circulating dollars internally, the local economy is empowered to operate in its best interests, rather than for shareholders, and becomes and less dependent on notoriously self-serving external investors like Bass Pro and Adelphia.

“Localism leverages community resources to meet community needs,” says Sarah Bishop, Buffalo First’s executive director.

Done right, community capital also uses a mix of investment options, including philanthropic gifts, bank or crowdsourced loans, credit enhancements, and equity investments. To mix metaphors, big and small fish get to play in the same pool, because the playing field is equalized.

Buffalo businesses are starting to embrace the local investment model. Rather than take out a traditional loan to expand his popular bakery, Five Points, owner Kevin Gardner used crowdsourcing through a Kickstarter campaign and asked his own customers to help him raise a total of $75,000 for the project. He gave a discount on $1,000 loans, which he said neighbors, family, and friends were more than happy to give. “They want to invest their money in something they care about, not their mutual fund,” Gardner says.

Buffalo Cash Mob, a retail “flash mob” where loyal customers are instructed via social media to show up en masse in support of their favorite mom-and-pop store, will take place as part of the conference on June 13 throughout the Elmwood Village. Buffalo’s Chris Smith claims rights to the concept, which has caught on in cities around the world and recently brought Time magazine to Buffalo to cover an event at El Buen Amigo.

Flavors of localism can vary from region to region, but BALLE and Buffalo First promote the concept of the “triple bottom line”: people, planet, and profit. What’s good for the environment and for the owners, workers, and customers of local businesses will benefit the community at large.

Socially responsible business, the new buzzword among big corporations, first took root in cities like Buffalo, where citizens were forced to find alternative ways to survive the manufacturing bust, depopulation, and the decline that threatened to define the Rust Belt.

Socially responsible businesses include the diner owner who also ran a soup kitchen before she sold the business to help the needy full-time (Amy’s Place). The breweries (Flying Bison, Community Beer Works) and restaurants (too many to list) who source from local farms, use local advertising agencies, or recycle their waste.

Buffalo First is part of an expanding grassroots nonprofit network—including Partnership for the Public Good, People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo), the Coalition for Economic Justice, the Clean Air Coalition, GO Bike Buffalo, Grassroots Gardens, and Buffalo Carshare—garnering national recognition by media like the Wall Street Journal and the Economist for their efforts.

They have input into many of the large-scale projects in town, including the nascent brewery district and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus being constructed downtown, the booming Larkin District entertainment block, and Canalside’s waterfront development plan.

BALLE notes that Buffalo First! has also become a national model for fixing broken economies by strengthening the businesses that “made Buffalo great in the first place.”

Bishop was chosen as a national BALLE fellow this year for her personal and professional roles in Buffalo’s vibrancy and diversity, from her work as a Pride Buffalo board member to her birthday party this spring that raised funds for a local LGBTQ business owner to attend the BALLE conference (it costs several hundred dollars for the three-day event).

In its first seven years, Buffalo First has held countless business networking and social events, hosted educational workshops, and launched a successful “Think Local First” campaign to encourage the public to produce and purchase from socially responsible, independently owned businesses. Today it represents hundreds of locally owned businesses and a network that numbers in the thousands.

What the city can now start to access, says Bishop, is “a new economic system that will move our society in a more positive direction, through gradually displacing failed structures and replacing those systems with ones that benefit everyone.”

Michelle Long, BALLE’s executive director, encourages Buffalo to attend next week’s conference events to learn more how localism works, and how to get involved. There are many ways to grow prosperity, she says, and everyone has a role to play.

“It doesn’t have to be a big, overwhelming process; it can happen in small ways,” Long says. “Make a connection with anyone— your supplier, potential partners, local shop-owners— make the choice to buy from local businesses whenever possible. But really, just get out there and connect with people. That’s where it all starts.”

Next week, BALLE members will take home a version of Buffalo, and some lucky ones will hopefully glimpse the city’s real side. The one that isn’t always pretty, but that demonstrates how investing in local business can help a community survive the worst, and bring out its best.

For the complete conference agenda and to register for events, visit

Lauren Newkirk Maynard is a former managing editor at Artvoice and a native of Philadelphia. She moved to Buffalo in 2001, the year BALLE was founded, and she can’t imagine living anywhere else.

blog comments powered by Disqus