Buying into the Local Spin
John Maynard Keynes, the great 20th-century macroeconomist, once said money is “a link between the present and the future.”
That vision rings true loud and clear, especially in uncertain times — and especially here in the Vail Valley, a vibrant community blessed with a resilient mountain heritage, spectacular natural surroundings, increasingly dynamic culture and a steady flow of tourists with money to spend.
Due to our relative remoteness, however, it’s easy for us to focus inward, leaving the rest of the world to swirl around us, beyond our horizon, out of sight and out of mind. But perhaps that’s just how we best can prosper. New-age economists are suggesting we turn inward, indeed, to share products and services locally, let the wonders of small-scale capitalism spin the dollars we have now within our own community and prepare to enjoy the future benefits of that monetary activity.
“The more times money is circulated among people in a community, the healthier the local economy, instead of having that money spent once and leave the community,” says Mickki Langston, co-founder and executive director of Colorado Local First, a statewide advocacy campaign aimed at raising awareness of the importance of local businesses. “It takes so much more for a community to import money, and jobs and new business, than it does for us nurture it all in our own community with our own neighbors.”
In other words: “Think global; buy local.”
The “buy local” movement is based on what advocates like Langston call the “local multiplier effect,” by which the local economic return generated from money spent at locally-owned, independent businesses is far greater than that generated by corporate chains, big box stores and online mail-order companies. Such local revenue benefits the local community by cutting down on transportation costs; locals support themselves by providing local products and services; locally generated income is used to pay rents, mortgages and local taxes; those taxes, in turn, fund everything from infrastructure improvements to higher education to nonprofit organizations and charities.
“With a publicly traded company that’s national or multinational, its primary responsibility is to return a profit to shareholders, many of whom may have no relationship with that company,” Langston says. “Locally owned businesses are different because the owners live here, too. It’s more possible for us to hold those businesses owners accountable for the decisions they make and how they impact our people and our resources. It’s also possible for us to reward and support those businesses who are making good choices.”
For example, Ptarmigan Sports, in Edwards’ Riverwalk shopping center, is owned by local outdoor enthusiast Steve Lincks, who recognized the need for an outdoor store offering fellow enthusiasts of mountain sports quality products with the highest level of customer service. That service includes not only assembling an unparalelled selection of merchandise, but educating customers and understanding their true needs. With that philosophy — virtually nonexistent at the big boxes — Ptarmigan has nearly tripled in size since opening in 1998, the staff growing from two to a dozen or so employees. The store’s customer base consists primarily of longtime locals, along with some second-home owners who wait till they’re in town to buy their outdoor gear at Ptarmigan.
“There’s nothing worse than ordering online as far as giving back to your community,” says one of those dozen employees, Manager Mike Sayers. “We stand on service and knowledge. If you can market something special that local people want — and can’t find online — you’ll be successful.”
It just so happens one of Ptarmigan’s most faithful customers is local resident Pollyanna Forster.
“I buy all my shoes and jackets, all my gifts to the family, at Ptarmigan,” she says. “I’m very conscious of supporting local business, especially here in Edwards.”
Forster is a prolific local entrepreneur. She co-owns eat! drink!, a popular, local culinary establishments across the street at The Corner offering gourmet foods, fine wines and spirits that “have a very extensive sense of place.” Like Ptarmigan Sports, eat! drink! depends on full-time locals for about 65 percent of their business, Forster says, the remaining coming mostly from part-time residents and tourists.
Forster also is co-owner and wine director upstairs at Dish, a “deceptively simple and innovative” restaurant known for its tasty, creative cuisine. To obtain fresh ingredients, Forster buys nearly all of Dish’s herbs, fruits and vegetables from local vendors at the Edwards Farmer’s Market or from the family-owned and -operated Copper Bar Ranch, a small operation that focuses on sustainable ranching just a couple miles away in the nearby Squaw Creek Valley, near Cordillera.
Forster is co-owner, too, next door at Cut, the only butcher shop in the Vail Valley devoted exclusively to meat, seafood and other “protein for the soul.” Cut offers, among other things, artisan cheeses and beef from cattle born and raised less than a mile away at Eaton Ranch, part of the original Eaton Family Homestead.
Mike Eaton, a great nephew of Vail’s iconic “finder,” the late Earl Eaton, says income from Cut and Dish — as well as other locally owned fine restaurants – supports his operation enough to keep it out of the hands of developers, who’ve long eyed the 25-acre parcel on the banks of the Eagle River.
“I don’t really make much money on the cows,” Eaton says. “I just do it to keep the property as a working ranch. My goal, ultimately, is to put this whole property into a conservation easement and keep it in the family.” Forster and other local restaurateurs in the Vail Valley — home to the most Wine Spectator award-winning dining establishments of any resort community in the United States — meanwhile, are a driving force behind efforts to develop productive, local community gardens here in the Vail Valley from which they can obtain the freshest-possible ingredients.
One hotbed, so to speak, on that front is a demonstration and trial garden operated by volunteers — including Eagle County employees and trustees from the county’s jail work-release program — and staff at the Colorado State University/Eagle County Extension Office. The garden is located in the back yard of a house on Main Street in Eagle, where vegetables like spinach, kale and lettuce are proving quite popular.
The demonstration garden is a local educational resource, as it’s home to the CSU/Eagle County Extension Master Gardener Program, through which a longtime local chef, Rick Kangas, recently earned a certificate. The garden is a scientific resource, as well, providing a test site of sorts at the lower elevations in Eagle River Valley offering data to horticultural specialists with the nonprofit Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. Located in Vail’s Ford Park and open to the public 365 days a year, the Gardens provide free access to an estimated 100,000 visitors annually. Its mission is to conserve plants of the American West and inspire passion for plants in high-altitude communities through beautification, conservation, education and research programs.
“We’re a group of people who enjoy gardening and want to learn more about it. Our role, beyond the demonstration beds, is to inform the public and answer questions and solve gardening problems,” says Kangas, formerly executive chef at Beaver Creek’s renowned Grouse Mountain Grill for more than a decade. “My focus in the program is the vegetable beds, but also helping with office work, including disease and pest identification and managing the Master Gardener database.”
Over the past few years, Kangas has become an integral part of another, larger educational program at Colorado Mountain College’s new campus at Miller Ranch. CMC’s Sustainable Cuisine program, as part of the college’s Culinary Institute, offers associate degrees and other certificates; and Kangas, in addition to teaching classes, is now managing Cafe Sus, the campus’s new, sustainable kitchen/cafe operation.
“Our commitment is to sustainability and lowering our carbon footprint college-wide,” says Kangas. “One of the prime reasons for Cafe Sus is to have an example — not only for the students but also for the community — of a sustainable business, a restaurant being one of the most difficult businesses to manage, let alone to commit to local recycling, composting, re-purposing and, overall, being eco-friendly.”
It’s here, at the Vail Valley’s only real institute for higher learning, that the numbers of dollars generated through property taxes, tuition and other sources of income become significant.
Tuition for associate-level classes at CMC, according to the college’s website, is $53 per credit hour for local students, $89 for other Colorado residents and $279 for students from outside the state. For full-time students seeking the standard 15 credit hours per semester, that translates to $795, $1,335 and $4,185 per semester, respectively. For an academic year, the average cost of full-time attendance at CMC for a student working toward an associate degree, including tuition and fees, living expenses, books and supplies, transportation and insurance, is between $15,156 and $21,556.
Debra Crawford, public information officer for CMC, says 1,128 individual students attended classes at the Edwards campus in the fall of 2011, as of Sept. 9, up from 1,094 in 2010. And while it’s like comparing apples to oranges, she offers statistics suggesting every dollar received by the college is returned to the local community by a factor of more than 3 to 1; the return over time, she adds, is nearly 7 to 1.
“CMC’s economic impact on our communities can largely be explained by what our employees and students spend within those communities on housing, food, goods and services, etc., while working or going to school here,” Crawford says.
In another economic twist of fate, that economic boost to local education — which all started with a local commitment to customer service and fresh food — multiplies yet again. CMC offers a wide variety of other programs, including continuing education courses for working adults aiming to develop their professional skills. Those courses range from business classes like public speaking, financial literacy, accounting, Internet commerce and social networking to certification programs in the fast-growing fields of green building and energy conservation.
R.A. Nelson & Associates — a local construction company that’s one of Eagle County’s largest employers — recently paid for five of its staff members to go through CMC’s Green Building Science and Integrated Engergy program, which trains architects, construction managers and others LEED-certified building techniques and how to incorporate them into new and existing projects.
That expertise no doubt played an important role in the company’s most recent community-minded project, the Gore Range Natural Science School’s new $10 million Walking Mountains Science Center, in Avon just north of Interstate 70. The world-class, five-building, five-acre Buck Creek Campus opened this fall featuring solar panels, vegetated roofs, eco-friendly building and insulation materials and even geothermal and grey-water systems. As part of its budget for continuing education, R.A. Nelson also funds what it calls the “H.E.R.O. scholarship” at CMC, paying expenses for one local, construction-minded student through their entire college experience. As part of the program, the student gives back to the community by engaging in volunteer services within the community.
“We don’t just build here. We live here, play here and raise our families here. We place a high priority on not only building for a community, but being part of it,” says the construction company’s marketing coordinator, Sandy Smith. “At R.A. Nelson, we know we’re lucky to be local, so we’re diligent about having our work reflect it.”
So, from retail to fine dining to farming to education to charitable causes and state-of-the-art community projects, that so-called local multiplier effect really does appear to work, just as Colorado Local First’s Langston explains it.
“As people learn more about the impact their choices have on their community, those things really matter,” says Langston. Where we spend money, process goods, even grow our food really does matter, on a variety of levels.