December 22, 2016: Shopping locally: not just a Christmas activity

Belmont Citizen-Herald: December 22, 2016

Belmont businesses this year have faced true difficulties.  The reconstruction of Trapelo Road has tied up traffic, posed parking problems, and made the area look dilapidated for businesses in Cushing Square.  Not something that encourages local foot traffic to support our shops. Work to replace the Leonard Street water mains, repave the road, and reconstruct the sidewalks has created real burdens for Belmont Center businesses. Couple that with the reconstruction of the Macy’s building into a space suitable for new tenants, the small businesses that comprise our Belmont Center business community have been hurt.  There’s no way to put too fine a point on that.

I have read during this holiday shopping season the ongoing encouragement for Belmont residents to “shop locally” as a way to support our local business community during the holiday season.  One reaction I have to this encouragement is akin to folk singer Harry Chapin’s ponderings about his fictitious Thanksgiving food drive (“what will people eat next week?”).   The question is not simply where you will finish your Christmas shopping this weekend. The additional question is where you will do your shopping next week? Or in March? Or in June?

Shopping locally is often promoted as a means to “support our local businesses.”  In some ways, that makes it sound like a charitable action by Belmont residents.  It is, however, much more than that.  Shopping locally is very much in the self-interest of every Belmont resident.  That’s not a political opinion.  Repeated research by local planners supports the conclusion that having locally-owned small business is good for a community as a community.

Let me set aside our local businesses who give Belmont High kids employment opportunities.  Walking into Stone Hearth Pizza, or the Toy Store, or Champions, and elsewhere, and seeing our kids have an opportunity to learn the lessons of having a regular job commitment, learn how to deal with the public, and learn how to work collaboratively with fellow employees to cover the work schedule, improves our community.  I haven’t seen research about local businesses hiring local kids, but it doesn’t take too much walking through Belmont Center to see that.

One big impact of shopping locally, of course, is that it keeps money in the Belmont community.  It supports wages for Belmont residents, who then spend those wages in other local businesses, which then become house payments and grocery budgets for other Belmont residents.  According to the American Independent Business Alliance, “independent retailers return more than three times as much money per dollar of sales than chain competitors.”  The Institute for Local Self-Reliance has found that, on average, 48 percent of each purchase at a local independent business is recirculated locally, compared to less than 14 percent of purchases at chain stores.

A perhaps more interesting study was one headed by Samuel Stroope, a professor at Louisiana State University.  Stroope found that local businesses not only support residential stability, but support property values.  Home buyers are more interested in living in a community that has a “unique personality,” that doesn’t look like Anywhere USA.  Think about how that intuitively rings true. Are you more attracted to a business center with a Terra Firma and a Bells & Whistles, or to one with a Walgreens?

As we all head into the last weekend before Christmas, it behooves us to take a last stroll through Belmont’s squares to shop locally.  But, even more than that, as we head toward the New Year, it behooves us even more to make a resolution that our local businesses merit not only our holiday shopping and dining, but our year-round shopping as well.

December 8, 2016: Belmont’s role in ‘season of giving’

Belmont Citizen-Herald: December 8, 2016

Belmont residents are a generous sort when it comes to financially supporting their favorite charitable institutions.  According to data maintained by the Internal Revenue Service, almost, but not quite, half of all Belmont residents filing a tax return in 2015 (tax year 2014), reported making some level of charitable contributions.  Nearly 5,500 Belmont taxpayers made total charitable contributions exceeding $40.3 million, an average of $7,400 per taxpayer.

In contrast, statewide, just over 30% of all Massachusetts taxpayers made contributions in 2014, the IRS data shows, averaging not quite $4,600.  These numbers do not include political contributions.

While the generosity of Belmont is driven somewhat by the higher incomes in many parts of our community, contributions come from all levels of income.  More than one-quarter of all Belmont contributors had incomes less than $100,000 and yet made contributions of almost $2,000 in 2014.  Belmont residents with income less than $25,000 made contributions averaging more than $1,200 in 2014.

Belmont provides ample opportunity for residents to make local charitable contributions.  The Belmont Food Pantry and Belmont Affordable Shelter Fund supply important social services to help people maintain healthy eating habits and preserve their place to live when trouble strikes.  The Belmont Citizens Forum is an important institution that focuses on local environmental concerns and is supported almost exclusively through local contributions.  The Massachusetts Audubon Society maintains the Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary in Belmont, a refreshing substantial open space conveniently located in the midst of our sprawling metropolitan area.  The Belmont Dramatic Club, founded in 1903, is the second oldest continuously operating community theatre in the United States.  The Belmont Gallery of Art is a privately supported gallery nestled on the top floor of the Homer Building next to Town Hall.

These institutions set aside the many “Friends” organizations in Belmont, whether they be the Friends of the Belmont Library or the Friends of the Council on Aging.  Support groups for various public school activities abound, whether it be athletics (Belmont Boosters), high school and middle school theatre (PATRONS), or the school system in general (Foundation for Belmont Education).

The Japanese have a word, tashinamu.  According to one etymologist, the word articulates the notion of privately devoting oneself to a project or goal, whether or not you will be recognized for the effort.  I frequently associate the word, for example, with the efforts of people who stoop to pick up trash along the sidewalk as they are out walking. Why do that? For the sake of tashinamu.  The English language does not have an equivalent word.  Nonetheless, this holiday season provides an opportunity to provide financial support to an institution of your choice. . .for the sake of tashinamu.

I have long admired the writing of American author James Baldwin.  Author of works such Giovanni’s Room and Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin once wrote that “We are responsible for the world in which we find ourselves, if only because we are the only sentient force which can change it.”  Your giving this season can help change the world.  It matters not so much which particular institution you might favor.  Charitable giving lends strength, lends vitality, lends vibrancy to a community.

The holiday season means different things to different people, depending on age, religious affiliation, family traditions, and other factors.  Religious observance. Family gatherings. Seasonal recreation.  However, as we head toward the end of the year here in Belmont, I encourage Belmont residents to view the holiday season in our community as a Season of Giving.  Large or small, local or otherwise, a financial contribution to the charity of your choice is an expression of community.