When Jennifer Martin pitched the idea of creating a beer festival to raise awareness about shopping local, there were concerns.
After all she was talking to a board for an organization that was founded 71 years ago as the business-oriented Greater Raleigh Merchants Association known for putting on the City of Raleigh’s annual Christmas parade.
“Did it fit with our brand? Did it fit with our model,” said Martin, executive director of Shop Local Raleigh, describing the questions the board considered as they moved forward with Brewgaloo. “At the end of the day, it completely made sense.”
Since the approval and the first Brewgaloo in 2012, crowds have doubled annually with 20,000 attending the April event last year. Behind the event, however, is a much longer-term triumph of the transformation of a struggling merchants association to one of the largest shop local movements in the state.
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Jeff Milchen, co-founder of American Independent Business Alliance, has seen lots of shop local campaigns come and go over the years. Milchen helped pioneer a shop local resurgence after starting an organization in Boulder, Colo. in the late 1990s, and then the national alliance a couple of years later.
The about 85 members of the national alliance include Shop Local Raleigh, Sustain-a-Bull in Durham and the Boone Independent Restaurants. Other efforts in the state that aren’t affiliated with the alliance include the established Asheville Grown Business Alliance to an effort trying to get off the ground in Albemarle, Milchen said.
Some key components of shop local organizations’ success include an active membership with owners heralding the message and hiring a staff person to organize and handle the mundane work while leveraging volunteers for events.
Most important, he said, the shop local message can’t just be put forth as a holiday shopping season campaign. Campaigns have to educate beyond the simpler shop local message and make concrete connections of the benefits of supporting independent companies.
“That is where you really see the game changing impact,” Milchen said.
Creating Shop Local Raleigh
According to Shop Local Raleigh, for every dollar spent in Wake County at a local store, 51.1 percent stays in the local economy compared to 13.6 percent for a national chain.
The history of the Shop Local Raleigh slips way back to the 1940s, when retailers were called merchants. They sought to build strength in numbers and founded the Greater Raleigh Merchants Association in November 1943, according to the N.C. Secretary of State’s website.
“People don’t even use the word merchant anymore,” said John Odom, whose longtime involvement with the merchants association helped launch a political career in which he has served five terms on the Raleigh City Council.
Odom, who now owns two Meineke Car Care Centers, was recruited to the association about 30 years ago. At the time, he said, they had a bunch of members on the books, but not many were paying dues.
Odom joined the association’s board, and then became its director. While the membership numbers weren’t high, the association did successfully advocate for small-business owners by working with the Raleigh City Council on issues such as fines, fees and the sign ordinance.
“So the next thing I know, I am trying to talk people into running for political office,” Odom said, adding that one person said “yes” but then backed out. “And finally, in the end, I decided to run.”
He was elected to the City Council in District B in 1993.
Over the years, the merchants association grew stagnant as its efforts centered on the Christmas parade and it lost focus of its value to retailers as chambers of commerce and other organizations developed, former and current board members said.
Around 2005, Odom started recruiting younger memberships. Those efforts brought on Stephen Votino, president and broker in charge at Century 21 Triangle Group and managing partner at Moonlight Management Restaurant Group, which owns three restaurants in Raleigh and two in Carrboro.
The association board and its volunteers talked about and promoted shopping local, but it wasn’t an official thing, Votino said.
But around 2007, Votino was looking at the Christmas parade’s contract with WRAL, the parade’s main sponsor, and realized the merchants association had about $80,000 in advertising credit, most of it on TV.
Votino set a meeting with Lori McDaniel, then an association board member and owner of Raleigh strategic marketing company Group3 Communications, who emphasized that they needed to pinpoint something of value to promote.
“We started talking about could we start leveraging shop local Raleigh in that message,” Votino said.
McDaniel said “shoplocalraleigh.com,” turned to her computer and bought the domain name.
They successfully pitched the idea to the board, which established a committee to shepherd the Shop Local Raleigh arm forward.
They hired Martin as executive director in May 2010, a move that current and former board members said has been an important part of the organization’s success.
Martin oversaw the implementation of fourth Friday meetings that travel to different locations, workshops, annual meetings, and had voiced concerns for businesses in sign ordinance discussions and initiatives such as retail treasure hunts during the slow summer season.
Martin, Odom said, is connecting businesses, specifically ones with one to 10 employees to resources and to each other.
“She has them talking,” Odom said. “And that makes a big difference.”
The organization had momentum in Martin’s early years, but it needed a platform to reach more consumers, she said. At the same time, the local craft beer craze had just hatched in the Triangle but local breweries were struggling with the concept of participating in beer events, some of which expected them to donate their product to participate.
After getting the board’s approval for Brewgaloo, Martin worked with volunteers, breweries and businesses on downtown Raleigh’s Fayetteville Street to create a craft beer festival in which Shop Local Raleigh would pay for the products, and stray away from the all-you-can-drink-for-one-price model. Patrons purchase tokens for a single pint for $5, or taster cards for $5. The system allows people to come and go, visit local eateries or turn to a food truck.
“You don’t have to buy a ticket to come,” Martin said.
Since 2012, the event has gone from 11 area breweries on one block of Fayetteville Street to 73 breweries covering the entire stretch of Fayetteville Street and overflowing onto side streets.
Mark Weldon, president of the board of directors of the Greater Raleigh Merchants Association, said while a few legacy members of the association remain, about 500 of its about 520 members fall under the Shop Local Raleigh subset and meet qualifications that include having an area resident be a majority owner and owning no more than 10 outlets within a state.
Jon Garrison, owner of Lilly’s Pizza in Raleigh and Durham, joined Shop Local Raleigh at its inception. He says the organization has helped consumers understand the importance and struggles of independently-owned companies and helped small companies compete with franchises and chains.
“It is a constant reminder, ‘Hey, your independents are the ones struggling to survive and they are the ones keeping money in town,’” he said.
What: 73 North Carolina craft breweries, 50 local food trucks, 30 vendors and four stages featuring 17 bands.
When: April 25, 2-10 p.m.
Where: Raleigh’s City Plaza
Cost: Single token for a pint is $5, taster cards are $5 and get you five, 3 ounce samples.