Lowcountry Local First has become the voice of a movement in Charleston.
At a glance
Lowcountry Local First: It’s a nonprofit dedicated to creating a healthy economic environment for locally owned businesses and independent farmers. It encourages consumers to support those businesses through campaigns such as Buy Local Month held Nov. 15-Dec. 15 and Eat Local Month in April.
Executive director: Jamee Haley, 48, of West Ashley is from Oklahoma. She attended Oklahoma State University and moved to Charleston to attend Johnson & Wales University in 1993. She owned a bedding and pillow design business before launching Lowcountry Local First.
Alliance members: 500 local businesses and 13 Community Supported Agriculture farms. To find businesses involved, look for the “Lowcountry Local First” decal on store windows and visit the online directory at lowcountrylocalfirst.org/business-directory
Through campaigns targeted at consumers, the nonprofit organization seems to have turned “local” into a brand.
Local stores now often are considered the ethical alternative to corporate retailers. Even the organization’s slogan, “Buy local, be local,” has become synonymous with a way of life.
Executive Director Jamee Haley established Lowcountry Local First in 2007 with co-founder Matt Bauer.
The organization was the first of its kind in the Lowcountry, but it stemmed from a national trend that started gaining momentum during the mid-2000s, Bauer said.
Communities nationwide were searching for ways to revert to econ-omies based on local resources. As corporations threatened to erase local merchants from the map, Bauer said, keeping dollars in the small business community became a key to their survival. Bauer helped organize a team of business leaders in Charleston, and Haley was named the executive director.
“Charleston was really a vacuum for this sort of organization,” Haley said. “We thought, there’s really nobody representing the local business community.”
The group formed a plan to create a federation of small business owners, who would pay annual membership dues. With that revenue, the organization would be able to fund its campaigns to reach consumers.
It got off to a slow start. In the first two years with the organization, Haley worked without a salary and directed all funds to the cause.
“With little resources at the beginning, it was hard to show members value unless they were really true believers and investing in the organization and movement for the long haul,” Haley said.
Lowcountry Local First has since grown to 500 members, and the demand for locally sourced goods and services is higher than ever, Haley said. Another pillar of the organization was to emphasize Community Supported Agriculture programs to connect local farms with consumers. Since the organization’s launch, 13 farms have joined those programs.
“We’re dealing with a much more conscious consumer,” Haley said. “They’re looking for ways to identify that the businesses are local, and they’re looking to see that products are locally made.”
To draw in more consumers to local shops during the holiday season, Lowcountry Local First is sponsoring Buy Local Month through Dec. 15.
American Express is sponsoring a similar campaign on a national scale. Small Business Saturday will be held Nov. 30, the day after Black Friday, to help local businesses gain a competitive edge against large chains. Five percent of sales at local businesses that day will benefit Lowcountry Local First.
“ ‘Buy local’ initiatives are really trying to get people to be mindful about the decisions they’re making when they spend their dollars, and how they impact our community,” Haley said.
In recent studies, the organization found that roughly 60 percent of money spent in local businesses returns to the community. Money spent elsewhere returns about 14 percent, Haley said.
The trend has been linked to creating a healthier environment for small business owners.
Affordables, a women’s boutique downtown and in West Ashley, has seen about a 25 percent increase in sales since joining Lowcountry Local First in 2012, said CEO Zack Kelley.
“I would definitely say our business has increased, and business at our South Windermere store has tremendously increased since joining LLF,” Kelley said. “Once you help the local retailer, that is really benefiting the local community.”
Haley said a key reason her work is so rewarding is because local retailers are often the ones to support area philanthropic efforts.
Affordables, for example, sponsors kids’ soccer teams and works with Blackboard Marketing to donate school supplies to local schools.
“If we don’t support those businesses, that would have a direct impact on the nonprofit community as well,” Haley said.
Haley admits that she can’t expect everyone to buy all of their goods locally, but she encourages people to shift at least 10 percent of their budgets to local businesses.
“We all either stayed here or moved here because of the unique character of this place,” she said. “And if we do not choose to support it with our dollars, then we run a very significant risk of losing it.”
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail