Business conference is a local first

April 15, 2012
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Real prosperity starts at home is the overall message the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies will deliver when the 10-year-old grassroots organization comes to Grand Rapids next month for five days.

Dozens of sessions, many of them interactive, will take center stage at the 2012 BALLE Business Conference May 15-19. The sessions will cover a wide range of sustainable economic issues and will feature a litany of individuals who have “been there and done that” and will share their insights as to how their communities, and in some cases their states, have hopped aboard the train to prosperity.

The event will offer films, tours and entertaining sidebars, such as Dinner on the Lawn at Mangiamo restaurant on Lake Drive SE, and the Back-of-the-Napkin Business Plan Competition, which not only honors the official stationery of entrepreneurs but also honors the best plans with free conference registrations.

Local First, an alliance of businesses that promotes doing business locally, is hosting the conference — the first BALLE conference to be held in the Midwest. Why River City?

“The city was picked because of the innovation that is happening in Grand Rapids to grow the economy from the inside out. The real Local First mentality there and the fact that Grand Rapids has been named one of America’s greenest cities (by Fast Co. magazine) are reasons we want to come and learn from that place,” said Michelle Long, BALLE executive director.

Long told the Business Journal that BALLE put the city on its radar screen largely because of the noted strides that Local First and environmentally attentive urban real estate developer Guy Bazzani have made in their respective fields, which encompasses much of the organization’s business philosophy.

“It’s really been through the efforts of the Local First organization, and Guy has been an ambassador for Grand Rapids through the socially responsible business community nationally. So the two of them have, I think, attracted a lot of attention to your city,” Long said.

Local First Executive Director Elissa Hillary said her organization was extremely pleased to host the conference, which will have more than 100 speakers ranging from entrepreneurs to philanthropists to economists to public-policy wonks. And it’s fitting that Local First is so involved with the event because BALLE lists a nationwide network of similar organizations as its members.

“Out of respect for Local First’s work and the tremendous rebirth of Michigan’s economy, BALLE decided to come to Grand Rapids. Local First was pleased to host one of BALLE’s representatives during the site-selection process. He was impressed not only with the Grand Rapids business community, but with our community as a whole,” said Hillary.

“We are thrilled to host this convention; it is high profile and I believe it fits the image of Grand Rapids very well,” said Doug Small, president of Experience Grand Rapids. Small added about 700 delegates will attend the event and BALLE has chosen the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel as the home base for its conference. “The direct spending estimate for this event is approximately $700,000,” he said.

BALLE, like Local First, is truly a from-the-bottom-up nonprofit. A Philadelphia restaurant owner, Judy Wicks, and a Boston-area health club owner, Laury Hammel, came up with the idea of starting a business group that would focus on social responsibility through what later became known as the triple bottom line. In 2001, Wicks, Hammel and two advisors started BALLE. 

Today, BALLE has more than 80 local business networks and 22,000 local business people under its banner in the U.S. and Canada. Those characteristics also make BALLE a bit different from many business groups because it isn’t restricted to a particular industry or region. Its annual meeting reflects that difference in that it’s more ArtPrize-ish than conventional. Instead of spending two or three days in a single location, BALLE will be here for five days and will use a minimum of eight locations.

“While it would have been easy to hold the entire conference in one venue, we didn’t want to miss the chance to show off more of our downtown. The main conference sessions will take place in the area around Fountain Street Church and GRCC. Evening events will be held on the river, in the East Hills neighborhood and at Rosa Parks Circle,” said Hillary. “And we’re working hard to incorporate as many Local First businesses as possible.”

Putting together the many sessions, topics, events and speakers the conference will offer isn’t an easy task. “It is a huge feat. Every time the conference goes somewhere, it leaves a trail of innovation that happens for the next decade. I mean, truly, that is what we hear. It’s a major feat,” said Long.

“We do have the rock stars of localization all coming, and they’re all looking at how we can do this differently; how we can have different results from our economy that will work for people and for the environment.”

The significant point Long said BALLE wants to make while it is here is that prosperity begins at the local level.

“While we’re there in Michigan, we want the focus to be on the fact that real prosperity does start locally. Real prosperity can’t be imported from afar. Real prosperity starts with local people who care about their own place. And we have a lot of power to build the kinds of economies that we want — that have health for all of us and opportunities for all of us and it starts with each of us,” said Long.

“So Michigan, with the challenges it has faced over the last few years and now the Rust Belt resurgence, is now a prime place for innovating differently because of the dip the state faced. And you also have bright spots like Grand Rapids that have figured out how to think differently. So we’re hoping to bring energy from around the nation and its best practices and to learn from what’s happening there,” she added. “So, it’s really an idea exchange.”

For more information on sessions and fees, go to www.livingeconomies.org. Hillary said Local First members qualify for a $60 discount and one-day tickets are also available. “If someone can’t afford the time or money to attend the whole event, multiple people can share a registration,” she said.

When asked what words best characterize the BALLE conference, Long didn’t hesitate with her response. “Life changing would be one. I would say inspirational. Also pragmatic, as people walk away with real skills, real tools,” she said. “And it’s an incredible connection opportunity. If you need ideas, if you need connection to other innovators, if you need investment or funding, this is the place to come if you’re focused on building healthy local economies.”

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