Big 2012 BALLE conference in GR

January 3, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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Local First will host the 2012 BALLE Business Conference in Grand Rapids May 14-18, the first time the 10-year-old national organization — Business Alliance for Local Living Economies — has held its major annual meeting in the Midwest.

Elissa Hillary, executive director of Local First, said she expects attendees to include from 500 to 600 “sustainable business entrepreneurs” and representatives from other Local First-type organizations around the country.

Local First, which has its headquarters at 955 Wealthy St. SE, is one of the “national leaders in the BALLE movement, so (the national organization is) aware of the work we are doing here,” said Hillary.

There will be a pre-conference on May 14 and 15 that will include a bus tour of Detroit so out-of-state conferees can see “some of the great work that’s happening there,” according to Hillary. May 15 will be Community Capital Day, focused on sources of capital for investments in local economies.

The BALLE Conference will take place throughout the northeast portion of downtown Grand Rapids, according to Hillary, including Grand Rapids Community College and Fountain Street Church, with breakout sessions at the Civic Theater and St. Cecilia Music Center.

“People who are visiting from around the country will really get to experience our community in a unique way,” said Hillary.

“Real Prosperity Starts Here” is the 10th annual four-day conference and will highlight West Michigan’s status as a leader in entrepreneurship and sustainable business, according to Local First. The conference will bring together entrepreneurs, business network leaders, economic developers, sustainability experts and local government and community leaders “to discuss a new economic model for the future, focused on local entrepreneurship,” according to a news release.

Cities that previously hosted BALLE conferences include Boston, Denver, Philadelphia and Portland.

According to information from Local First, BALLE was founded in 2002 and is headquartered in Bellingham, Wash. It is said to be the first organization dedicated to leveraging local business “to unleash real prosperity. BALLE connects visionary local leaders across North America so they can find inspiration and support. Through intense collaboration, the organization identifies and promotes the most innovative business models for creating healthy, wealthy and sustainable communities.”

With a growing network of 22,000 local entrepreneurs spanning 80 communities, “BALLE is leveraging its collective voice to drive new investment, scale and spread the best solutions and harness the power of local business to transform the communities where we work and live,” according to Local First.

More information is available at

“This conference is truly an opportunity to showcase West Michigan to the world,” said Hillary. “From local business ownership to sustainable food systems, green manufacturing to urban renewal, West Michigan is developing a new economic model for the 21st century, and we’re excited to share it with visitors to the 2012 BALLE Business Conference.”

Local First is a nonprofit supporting local business ownership in West Michigan. Representing nearly 600 local business members, Local First is the largest “Buy Local” organization in the Midwest and the third-largest per capita in the United States, according to Hillary.

“Seventy-three percent more money stays in our community if spent at a local business, so much of our work is focused on growing and sustaining our local economy and not leaking money out elsewhere for jobs elsewhere,” said Hillary.

“We work with all locally owned businesses — anything from a one-person shop to a regional company that is headquartered here.”

Member companies include large ones such as Meijer, Amway and Celebration Cinema, according to Hillary. Grand Rapids Business Journal parent company Gemini Publications also is a member.

“For us, it’s all about local ownership that’s committed to West Michigan and making this a great place to live,” she said.

Local First was founded in 2003 by a group of seven business owners led by Guy Bazzani, a design/build developer in Grand Rapids who specializes in green construction. The group was dedicated to promoting local businesses in Grand Rapids and was known as BALLE West Michigan because of its early involvement with the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.

By the end of 2009, Local First’s membership exceeded 500 locally owned businesses. In 2010, it was named the Midwest regional hub network for BALLE. As part of BALLE’s Community of Practice, Local First serves as an advisory group on Buy Local campaigns throughout the Midwest. As a recognized leader on local business issues and sustainability, Local First participates in an advisory capacity on some of the city of Grand Rapids’ economic development initiatives, according to Hillary.

The Local First Educational Foundation has produced educational events such as the Local First Sustainability Conference, the Local First Street Party and the Eat Local Challenge.

A 2008 study commissioned by Local First determined that a 10 percent shift in consumer spending toward locally owned businesses could create approximately 1,600 new jobs, $140 million in new economic impact and $50 million in new wages. The study has been widely distributed throughout the country and helped establish Local First as a leading advocate for local business and sustainable economic development.

“We could not be more excited to be partnering with Local First to bring this year’s BALLE Business Conference to Grand Rapids,” said BALLE Executive Director Michelle Long. “West Michigan has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that an economy driven by local businesses, local ownership and local investment is stronger and more resilient than the broken systems that have destroyed the global economy. It is a region caught in a perfect storm of economic challenges that is defying the odds and creating a crucial blueprint for a new economy.”

BALLE had its roots in the Social Venture Network following a meeting in 2001. A key member of the founding group was Judy Wicks, a Philadelphia restaurateur who fought in the 1970s to prevent her neighborhood from being demolished so that a mall could be built there.

BALLE eventually spun off from SVN to become its own nonprofit organization, and held its first national conference in Portland, Ore., in 2003. BALLE and SVN continue as sister organizations, jointly sponsoring Social Venture Institutes.

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