tampabay.com

This crowd's big idea is to focus on small

By CHRISTINA REXRODE
Published November 17, 2006


TAMPA - In battles between David and Goliath, Stacy Mitchell plays favorites.

A researcher from the Institute of Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis and a champion of the little guy, Mitchell delivered a pep talk for independent businesses on Thursday night.

She espoused her message of preserving neighborhood businesses as they face a tidal wave of chain stores.

"We're told that these chains represent progress," Mitchell, 33, told an audience of about 30. "But none of this really looked like progress to me."

But hers was not a doom-and-gloom message, and the buzz among a group of committed local independent businesses seemed upbeat.

Carla Jimenez, the co-owner of Inkwood Books in Tampa, said she's encouraged that the Tampa Independent Business Alliance is adding members and becoming more diverse.

TIBA had fewer than 40 members when it was officially formed in early 2004, said Jimenez, the group's president. Now it has about 145, including a half dozen added in the past month, and the membership has stretched across industry lines to include small law firms and interior decorating businesses.

"Now even dentists have to compete with national chains," she said.

Denise Chavez, the owner of Tampa's Chavez at Home: Gourmet Take-Home Cuisine joined TIBA this fall and prefers it over industry-specific groups like the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. "They just look like lobbyists," she said of the latter.

Mitchell spoke to TIBA two years ago and was back to promote her new book, Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses, which was released Nov. 1. In it, she blames Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Starbucks, Old Navy and their comrades for many of society's ills, like increased gas consumption and decreased interaction with neighbors.

These megastores don't benefit the local tax base, she said, because they receive so many unfair kickbacks from local governments, and they don't do much business with local banks or advertisers.

And, she said, despite what we've been hypnotized into believing, their prices aren't necessarily cheaper.

But Mitchell wasn't sounding a death knell for the neighborhood bakery or bookstore. "I'm actually feeling pretty optimistic these days," she told the audience.

Christina Rexrode can be reached at 727 893-8318 or crexrode@sptimes.com.