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Baxter's 3/50 Project could be answer to keeping local business community strong

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The concept behind the 3/50 Project is deceptively simple: Pick three independently owned stores in your community that you do not want to see fail, and spend $50 a month at those stores.

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But as uncomplicated and sensible as the concept may be, many people simply don't understand why it's so important, said Mary Beth Gilsdorf, one of three Norby siblings who currently comprise the fifth generation of her family to own and operate Norby's Department Store in Detroit Lakes.

In fact, Gilsdorf continued, even her own friends and family members have occasionally talked about doing their back to school shopping in the Twin Cities, or finding a really good bargain online.

"They just don't get it," she said, adding that one of her biggest frustrations has been, "Why do we have to tell people it's important?"

While local retailers might not have everything available at the lowest possible price, it never hurts to check out what is available downtown before heading off to Fargo or Minneapolis, she said.

In a town the size of Detroit Lakes, she added, "it's even more critical... to support and keep the businesses we already have. We can't spare any business -- there's not a single business we can afford to lose."

Gilsdorf, who is one of the committee members working to spur community interest in the "buy local" initiative, spoke at Tuesday's Economic Development Summit hosted by the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The annual summit brought together a room full of area business and community leaders for an informative morning's discussion about efforts to spur economic development in the lakes area.

But the main topic of the day was the aforementioned 3/50 Project, which was launched on March 30, 2009, by Golden Valley businesswoman and retail consultant Cinda Baxter.

Baxter was the keynote speaker at Tuesday's summit. A successful retailer in the Minneapolis area for 14 years, she has also worked as an event coordinator for clients including the NFL, NBA and PGA; launched three successful online communities to support store retailers in the gift, stationery and home accessory industries; and of course, founded The 3/50 Project (www.the350project.net).

A self-proclaimed "quote junkie," Baxter launched her presentation with one of her favorites: "Success is a journey, not a destination."

"We're just on the pothole portion of the trip right now," she joked, in reference to the country's ongoing economic woes of the past couple of years.

Baxter talked about the process by which she arrived at the 3/50 concept, during what she called "a lousy week in March."

The week began with a segment on the "Oprah Winfrey Show," where Winfrey and guest financial expert Suze Orman talked about the need for consumers to stop spending money on anything that wasn't a necessity.

"Oprah, you've got it wrong," Baxter wrote on her blog, which is found at her consulting Web site, Always Upward (alwaysupward.com).

While learning not to spend beyond one's means is important, cutting out all discretionary spending is not the way to do it, Baxter noted.

In fact, she said, saving instead of spending money can actually slow down economic recovery instead of speeding it up.

As she put it in that original March 3, 2009, blog post, "Slamming the brakes on any spending not critical for human survival will shut down local business, bankrupt the local tax base, and put more people on the unemployment line than if we just behave responsibly... What our economy needs is moderation. Learning how to live within our means. Spending with thoughtfulness and responsibility. What we don't need is for someone with such an influential voice to holler 'Shut it down.'"

That same week, Baxter watched a show on CBS News that reported, "Consumer spending drives 70 percent of the economy. When consumers put their wallets away, the economy has trouble making a U-turn."

Later that week, CNBC analyst Erin Burnett made an appearance on "The Today Show" where she talked about how psychology plays into the economy, and the importance of innovation in times of difficulty. In another appearance on "Meet the Press," Burnett chided the national media for "taking negative hyperbole into the stratosphere" with regard to the economy.

All of these factors caused Baxter to seek a more palatable alternative to Winfrey's extreme suggestion.

"I'm not one who is wired to believe the glass is half empty, with a hole in the bottom," Baxter joked, adding that when she sees something is broken, she wants to fix it.

Baxter was referred by a friend to an online article about strengthening the local economy by patronizing local "brick and mortar" businesses, written by BizWomen.com consulting editor Rieva Lesonsky.

In that article, Lesonsky talked about supporting three local stores that she would "most hate to see go out of business."

Baxter got the idea to tie that concept into an earlier proposal she had written about in her blog, "The $50 Retail Challenge."

That challenge, made by a Canadian retailer, was that everyone who is employed and capable of doing so should go out and spend $100 a month in retail stores, restaurants, at the movies... or $50, or "whatever you can afford."

In her blog, Baxter noted that if only half of the country's employed population spent $50 a month in independently owned stores, it would bring in nearly $43 million revenue a year. And for every $100 spent in independently owned stores, Baxter added, $68 is returned to the local economy through taxes, payroll and other expenditures.

By contrast, Baxter said Tuesday, only $43 of every $100 spent in a "big box (i.e., national chain) store" stays local -- and none of it stays local if that money is spent online.

And that, in a nutshell, is the 3/50 Project, Baxter noted.

"So does it work? You bet it does," she added, noting that the first week after she launched the 3/50 Project web site, it received 7,600 "absolute unique" visitors (i.e., having a separate IP address).

"It's grown a bit since then," she added, noting that as of last Sunday, the web site had received 319,800 "absolute unique visitors," and more than 409,500 visits overall. In addition, it has had 1.2 million page views.

The project also has 17,700 registered supporters, Baxter noted.

"We have become media darlings," she said, noting that she herself "was the last person in America to realize what this was turning into."

As it happened, Baxter's appearance in Detroit Lakes coincided with the one-year anniversary of the project, and in recognition of that fact, Baxter was presented with a gift basket from local retailers by Detroit Lakes Chamber President Kris Tovson.

She was followed by Gilsdorf, who talked about how "empowering" it was to spread the "buy local" message.

"People just don't see the ties between what they buy and the economic viability of the community," she said.

But once that connection is made, it's a powerful one, she added.

As far as the local 3/50 Project goals, Gilsdorf said, they're pretty simple.

If they can convince local consumers to take $50 of the money they already spend on goods and services, and use it to purchase those goods and services locally, they will have done their job.

"Every $50 spent makes a difference between a business being there or shutting its doors next year," she said.

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