Beyond the big box

AMIBA seeks to unite independent businesses



It’s not just about Wal-Mart anymore.

This fall, when the Arkansas-based retail giant proposed building a 156,000 square foot Supercenter in Polson, citizens formed Lake County First (LCF), a group whose aim is to block the Supercenter.

Now it appears that Wal-Mart’s proposal has made some Polson residents aware of the wider world of retail development, and how it might affect their city. On May 4, about 50 Polson residents gathered at the Polson High School auditorium to listen to Jeff Milchen, who was invited by LCF to explain just what Polson is facing, and how local businesses can prepare for it.

Milchen is founder of the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA), an organization that helps communities form independent business alliances (IBAs). Such alliances, in a nutshell, are a way for locally owned businesses to band together to mutual benefit in the face of encroaching corporate retail.

Milchen talked about the “evolution” of retail, from small “mom and pop” stores to department stores to shopping malls and, lately, to big box chain stores such as Costco, Target and Home Depot.

Big boxes, as far as Milchen and LCF are concerned, represent the Tyrannosaurus rex of retail—they’re big, powerful, and predatory.

And it’s not just the size of the big boxes that scares Milchen and others; it’s their teeth and claws—their ability to use their wealth to influence politics and public opinion.

Through IBAs, Milchen helps local business form their own teeth and claws.

Milchen started the first IBA in Boulder, Colo., in 1998.

“I didn’t want to see a sea of the same there,” he says, referring to his belief that chain stores blot out the unique characteristics of communities.

His group helped Boulder businesses compete with box stores by pooling their resources for advertising, and giving them a more powerful combined voice when it came to local politics.

Boulder Independent Business Alliance’s (BIBA) ad campaign focused on marketing Boulder’s local businesses as a brand. BIBA ran ads promoting the qualities of local businesses and the economic advantages of shopping locally. It also sought to brand their competitors, the corporate retailers.

“We set out to make chain stores uncool,” Milchen says.

What they accomplished, he says, was making shoppers aware that there was a choice to be made between local and corporate stores.

Milchen notes that in the last few years, several corporate chain stores in Boulder’s downtown pedestrian mall have moved out, making way for locally owned businesses.

Milchen left Boulder for Bozeman three years ago, where he started AMIBA and began franchising his IBAs to communities all over the country.

AMIBA has now spawned a total of 22 IBAs, made up of approximately 3,700 small business and 4,000 individuals in communities including Austin, Texas; Louisville, Ky., and Corvallis, Ore.

Milchen says the IBAs’ biggest political victory so far came in Austin, where the local group was able fund a study that showed how local businesses are better for the local economy, which it used to sway public opinion against a proposed $2 million tax subsidy for a new Borders bookstore. The IBA won, the subsidy was withheld, and Borders didn’t build.

The result, Milchen says, showed that “When the playing field is level, local businesses can compete.”

In order to create an AMIBA-affiliated IBA, Milchen asks that a community define a radius in which the majority owner of a business must live to be part of the alliance. Businesses that become members must also have their business decisions made by people living in that radius. The startup cost to become an AMIBA affiliated IBA is $950, which includes help starting up the IBA. Annual fees, set by individual IBAs, range from $200 to $400. (In comparison, Polson’s chamber of commerce charges a $250 annual membership fee to businesses employing 6 to 15 employees.)

Milchen says he is not at all surprised that more and more communities are interested in forming IBAs—he says he gets 20 speaking requests per week, few of which he can actually accommodate. Money, he says, is the only thing holding him back right now. Until a month ago, AMIBA operated with an all-volunteer staff. There’s now one part-time employee.

If AMIDA receives the grant money Milchen applied for this year, he says he’ll be able to fulfill more speaking requests and spread his idea more quickly.

Ultimately, Milchen hopes, while the IBAs are working on local politics and marketing, AMIBA would be getting involved on the national level. Milchen says he has already seen a hint of this in New Mexico, where the state’s Albuquerque and Santa Fe IBAs have lobbied their state legislators.

Carolyn Beecher, president of Lake County First, is hopeful that Polson will be the second Montana community to join the IBA movement. She says at least 20 local business owners have expressed interest. Another meeting to discuss formation of an IBA is tentatively planned for the end of this month.

By a show of hands, at least 12 local business owners attended Milchen’s Polson speech.

Leroy “Yogi” Trujillo, owner of Yogi’s Sure Shot Photography in Polson, was one.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Trujillo says. “But I don’t know if everyone will get on board. A lot of people are afraid to show their true colors.”

Trujillo says that local attitudes about the proposed Supercenter have become so polarized that Supercenter supporters might boycott business owners who oppose it.

Still, he says, “You’ve got to step up. You’re going to lose your customers now or later, when [the Supercenter] gets here.”

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