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Sunflower Farmers Market
San Isidro Plaza 2—Why not Revenge of San Isidro?—will have a Sunflower Farmers Market.

Zane's World

Local Scare

August 27, 2008, 12:00 am
I love Jeff Branch. Or, at least, I appreciate the sense of order he and his development corporation, Columbus Capital, bring to the world. How can there be light without dark? Good without evil? OK, evil may be a strong word for such a perpetually smiling, Jaguar-driving guy but, in the parlance of Star Wars, he’s definitely on the side of the Empire.

Like Darth Vader, there are glimmers of goodness. Branch’s biggest development, San Isidro Plaza, home of Lowe’s and that place where you have to go to buy an iPhone, has lured some local businesses such as Josh’s BBQ and Tribes Coffeehouse to a popular Southside location next to Regal Cinema 14.

Lowe’s is just plain nicer than Home Depot and I’m a sucker for stadium seating in a movie theater. Nonetheless, if it weren’t for Branch, the unsightly, damned development wouldn’t exist.

I still remember Branch giving his best, Spanglicized, awww shucks, homeboy schtick to the Village of Agua Fria before pitting neighbor against neighbor and city against county in an unsightly land grab that involved anchor tenant Lowe’s making a significant donation to Branch’s wife’s pet charity. Ahem.

Now we’re stuck with a Centex development—the mass-produced housing product with a name that sounds like a nerve gas—sitting on the edge of the city like a synthetic-stuccoed hematoma. And development at San Isidro isn’t done—not by a long shot. San Isidro Plaza 2, the sequel, is now in the works. Seems like a lost opportunity—it could have been called San Isidro Strikes Back or San Isidro 2: Buy Harder.

A new sign, directly across the street from Lowe’s, is advertising space-for-lease adjacent to impending new anchor tenant The Sunflower Farmers Market, a chain grocer popular in Colorado and Texas and with corporate offices in Arizona. Like Whole Foods, it aims to capitalize on the organic food craze and the folksy image of farm fresh products. Like Vitamin Cottage, it aims to beat Whole Foods with cheaper prices and a more specialized selection. Unlike the actual Santa Fe Farmers Market, it ain’t local. It’s not even close.

If developers like Branch and the franchise stores that flood our city represent the Empire, I like to think of the Santa Fe Alliance and Locals Care as the Rebellion. These are organizations that organize and promote “buy local” programs and facilitate marketing and networking opportunities among locally-owned businesses. These are the people on the front lines of activism for retaining and regenerating prosperity in the community.

So, I don’t want to pick on the do-gooders or anything, but Locals Care needs to pick up the caring by a notch or three.

The organization runs a program that allows anybody and everybody to pick up a credit card-style card and register to use it at locally owned businesses. Each time a user makes a purchase, the vendor contributes a percentage to Locals Care, which is divided between support for one’s choice of regional non-profits (I donate to Warehouse 21, personally) and “community points,” which the card holder can redeem like cash from participating merchants.

I’m a whore for the program. I love it and the incentive works for me: I shop whenever possible with a participating business, even if I pay a slightly higher price. Recently, though, I stopped by a local eatery and found they were no longer participating.

“The marketing doesn’t encourage people to come back and spend their accrued points with local businesses,” the owner told me. “Most people don’t even understand how the program works.” She said her restaurant forked over more than $200 each month to the program, but rarely had people redeem points—for which the business is compensated without fee by Locals Care—and thus saw no benefits in its till.

A few days later I received an e-mail reminding me I had more than $120 dollars to spend. At $10 per $1,000 spent, that’s proof I believe in the program enough to shop locally with some seriousness.

Points lamentably expire at 18 months, so I rushed out to use my credits to offset a purchase of more than $400 at a local store. But when my order was rung up, the staff didn’t know what I was talking about. They credited my purchase to Locals Care, but when I wanted to use my $120, they said it didn’t work like that and I had to eat the cash I was sure I could redeem.

Indeed, when I double-checked the e-mail, I confirmed I should have been able to redeem the value with any participating merchant.

Locals Care managers acknowledge they need to beef up marketing and staff training for merchants who sign up for the program. On the success side, they highlight the $100,000 the program has raised for local non-profits.
But the problems with Locals Care end up keeping people who have spent once (or many times) at a store from respending at the store to complete a cycle that infuses cash back to the merchant.

And here’s what is troubling: Locals Care has little incentive to improve the marketing and understanding of this process because, when the process fails, Locals Care is left holding the money. Representatives from Locals Care did not respond by press time to a query on whether those monies are directed toward non-profits or back into the organization.

The Santa Fe Alliance, currently a partner with Locals Care, is set to consider next month whether or not to continue affiliation. Not everyone believes it should. Locals Care is a good program that can be better: It’s time to prove it.


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