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Trying times highlight importance of Lowcountry Local First

It was about 13 years ago I was at Hominy Grill enjoying breakfast with friends and our discussion turned to the perils of being a small business owner. By the end of our meal, I was struck by a few realities.

First, there was no support system for locally-owned businesses.

Second, the existing model of economic development was based on attraction, not retention.

Third, if we weren’t careful, we would end up living in a place where our historic district resembles a homogenized Disneyland and big box stores would gladly rake in our locally-earned dollars and send them to their distant corporate headquarters.

What could be done to address these issues?

After a great deal more reflection, discussions and listening, I along with a merry band of locals decided to launch Lowcountry Local First, with the goal of creating a level playing field for local independent businesses. I felt the need to be involved personally, as my hand-embroidered pillows and bedding line had grown popular and I’d become an “accidental entrepreneur,” selling across the country at independent businesses like GDC Home, but also at Neiman Marcus.

Problem: My products were in demand, but I had no idea how to price my product, navigate trade shows, build a website, or get a loan.

Our team decided to change that — for all our businesses. Through my own experiences in small business, then working with retailers and listening to local business owners of all types we gained an even greater understanding of the hurdles that local businesses face.

The basic complexities of opening a brick and mortar business are seemingly endless: Building permits, design review boards, payroll, state and federal filing requirements, the list goes on. Restaurants are faced with impact fees, meeting DHEC and fire marshal requirements and the added expense of architects and engineers. The process is slow, often arbitrary and almost always demands the cost of legal counsel. Some aspiring businesspeople run out of funds before they ever open their doors.

Unfortunately, the complexities are not unified, or “one size fits all.” Each industry — whether it’s a farmer, retailer, small manufacturer, or restaurant — has its own set of challenges.

Once we decided on a way to help small businesses, Lowcountry Local First was launched as a nonprofit that solely advocates for local-independent businesses. We are a trusted voice with local, state and federal officials. We provide the social network and technical services that create an environment that supports their success and we educate the public on the critical role these businesses play in our lives and our economy.

Our work falls under three main initiatives, Good Business, Good Farming and Good Enterprises. Through each of these initiatives, we are filling the gaps in the entrepreneurial ecosystem that others aren’t addressing.

These businesses are owned by our friends and neighbors … the ones who sponsor our kids’ soccer teams and support our causes. They aren’t publicly-held behemoths looking to make money for shareholders … they are making sure they can pay their employees, support their families and provide high-quality goods and services. Every local small businessperson knows the person they sell to might be sitting next to them at church.

Perhaps, most importantly, these are the businesses that keep our communities from becoming “Anywhere USA.” Lowcountry Local First isn’t about protectionism or NIMBYism, but rather about creating a regenerative economy rather than extractive economy. We are about the preservation of our unique culture and the region as a community of people, not a collection of buildings.

The current pandemic crisis has heightened the need for an organization like ours and we are helping small businesses navigate the complexities of the CAREs Act, providing consulting services and hosting webinars.

We are making sure that the public knows where and how to support our farmers and local businesses, many of which are offering goods and services through our website.

It has never been more important to “spend locally” than right now. Your purchases will ensure that the businesses you love today are here tomorrow.

Jamee Haley is the executive director of Lowcountry Local First.

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