Geri Stengel

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Small Business Network Builds for Members and Community

Ellen Shepard runs a network for mostly mom-and-pop stores in a neighborhood of Chicago. She's focused on a mile-long stretch of one of Chicago's main streets.

Instead of being taken over by big-box and chain stores – they did try to move in – the Andersonville neighborhood has become a dining and shopping destination for Chicago residents, in part because the neighborhood businesses worked together to preserve their small-town feel.

help for small business, small business network, locally owned business, resources for small businesses, entrepreneursThat's Shepard's assessment, based on a survey of shoppers in the area. The survey showed that the character of the area – small shops, run by the local owners – attracted people. 

In the last year, Andersonville businesses have been doing better than those in malls and in less organized neighborhoods: fewer vacancies and better-than-national-average sales.

How did that happen? By working together. Andersonville merchants have joined forces to support and promote locally owned businesses and sustainability.

It's a small business network that provides consumer education about the value of shopping in locally owned stores; marketing; small business-to-small business relationships; and resources that small businesses need to survive and thrive.

Supporting local small business is better for everyone, Shepard says, even the cities and counties that routinely court big box stores. She cites research that shows taxes per square foot are higher for a small business than for a big box store and the local folks provide local jobs and keep the money in the neighborhood, which, in turn, provides more tax dollars.

An added benefit is that local owners are triple-bottom-line kind of folks, whether they realize it or not. They live in the neighborhood and associate with their customers outside of work, so they are concerned about the community, its people, and its environment.

The Andersonville Development Corporation, an off-shoot of the rather unconventional Andersonville Chamber of Commerce – Shepard is executive director of both – provides the members of its small business network with:

  • Tools to help small businesses become more sustainable. Most "green" and "sustainability" programs are aimed at large corporation, Shepard says. The ADC developed eco-Andersonville to help businesses become certified as green businesses. Among its resources: a list of local businesses where you can buy what's needed to be green.
  • A micro-study to find out what kind of businesses were needed (no more restaurants, more clothing) and why consumers come to the area (small business atmosphere).
  • A grant to buy recycling bins for the water bottles etc. of shoppers.
  • Education for consumers about the advantages of shopping locally, with research about the multiplier effect of money spent at a locally owned business.
  • Resources for small businesses, such as how to write a business plan or a workshop on customer service.
  • A market study, in the language of real estate, that made the case for renting to local small businesses rather than looking for a chain-store tenant.
  • With the resources of BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) shares marketing ideas from people in different communities and templates for common needs, such as incorporation papers.

"We are all working together to build the world we want to live in," says Shepard. "It's easier to do on a small scale."

And it's easier to do with help from your neighbors, friends, and fellow entrepreneurs!

Are you a member of a small business network? How has networking helped your business? Do you think it could help if you had access to a network?