In an increasingly hi-tech, global market, convenience has become the golden calf. Consumers expect year-round savings and availability, and independent businesses find themselves unable to compete with the "faster, bigger, cheaper" approach of corporate chains. One-stop shopping behemoths air commercials peppered with "hometown" images, implying that their shelves are stocked with local crops and products designed and produced around the corner. But Idaho's apples come from Washington, and the jungle of cheap plastic and textiles often grows from the soil of far-off lands like China, Taiwan and Indonesia. Sure, we have production plants and interests in these countries that provide "necessities" at extremely low costs, but there is a growing murmur among Americans that we need to bring jobs and economic stability home.
The issue is not cut and dry, and no one nation-not even the U.S.-can be self-sufficient in the modern world. There is too much interdependence established over too many years, but there are a few things regular people can do to make their own communities and economies stronger, thereby fortifying the same on a national scale.
It was with this ideal in mind that a handful of visionaries came together in 1986 to form Buy Idaho, "a non-profit, non-tax supported association of Idaho business, industry, agriculture, education and governmental entities, working together in business-to-business and business-to-consumer modes promoting Idaho products and services." Idaho's economy was in a discouraging slump at the time, and people like Butch Otter and Bruce Belcher began advocating a return to small town values, especially in the local business sector.
"They realized the economy needed help and that people needed to start working with each other a lot more to make the state healthier," said Barbara Dorsey, Buy Idaho's membership services director since its inception. Dorsey was working with an ad agency when she was approached about becoming a part of Buy Idaho, and she was on board almost immediately. "It's a neat concept-teach people what we have in Idaho and buy from each other instead of leaving the state-it's just smart thinking," she said.
Nineteen years and nearly 1,000 members later, Buy Idaho's mission is still the same: To help member firms develop an increased volume of business inside and outside the state; to expand Idahoans' knowledge of the spectrum of services and products available in Idaho; and develop a business-to-business and business-to-government information network in order to bring them together to strengthen local economies and a statewide sense of unity and identity. The idea is simple, a kind of "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" system of loyalty and dedication to community. The problem is, consumers have gotten lazy, ignorant and even apathetic about where they shop.
"Think before you purchase. If you can't buy Idaho, buy U.S. Think about home first," Dorsey said. "It helps the economy and it makes sense. I think a lot of the country's problems would be solved if more people would start doing that."
So how does Buy Idaho promote Idaho business? Using a Web site, a downtown headquarters and trade shows that draw crowds in the thousands, Buy Idaho's hard-working, full-time staff of two manages a database of its members and the responsibility of allying them with each other and those outside the circle who may not know about the goods and services available within state lines. In addition to networking, benefits include hot links on the Buy Idaho Web site, displays in the showroom and a place in the main directory, regular newsletters and big exhibitions. Dorsey takes calls, makes referrals, organizes events and watches over the 8th Street Marketplace showroom, and Executive Director Dale Peterson attends Rotary, Kiwanis and Chamber of Commerce meetings between public speaking engagements throughout the state meant to educate consumers and business owners alike about the benefits of buying local.
Peterson worked for 40 years in radio, starting as a DJ while attending Albertson College and working his way up to owning Caldwell's KCID. After selling the station in 1998, Peterson retired for "a few minutes" before responding to a Buy Idaho ad for a new director. Membership was down, but Peterson used his industry savvy to turn things around.
"Having been in the media, I worked closely with them to establish the value of being a member of a loyalty group," he said. His strategy involved garnering a little advertising charity for Buy Idaho businesses by explaining that increased sales would lead to more jobs, bigger revenues and more clients in need of advertising. It worked, and Buy Idaho continues to grow and thrive without any help from the government. In fact, as far as Dorsey and Peterson know, their organization is the only one of its kind that receives no government subsidies. They rely on reasonable membership fees and funds raised by events like the one that happened last weekend at The Winery at Eagle Knoll. Enjoying a lovely outdoor atmosphere and live music by local bands, 30 vendor booths offered samples of Idaho products ranging from homemade jams and jellies to a locally made ATV. Two more such events are happening later this year at St. Chapelle and Carmela Winery in the hope that people will realize Buy Idaho is about more than cutesy potato paraphernalia.
"Our members range from small mom and pops to Micron and US Bank, and a lot of people are buying out-of-state products that are available here because they don't know what's out there," Peterson said. "But people in general prefer to buy local products and keep the money at home rather than sending it out of state. The quality is usually higher, and there are no transportation costs. Plus, you're buying from an Idahoan, a friend, a neighbor who will back up your satisfaction. It's hard to get a warranty from a guy in Alabama."
For more information on Buy Idaho, visit www.buyidaho.org.