Carla Jimenez and Maryann Ferenc 

"Little choices add up to big dollars"

Who? Carla Jimenez and Maryann Ferenc, co-founders of the Tampa Independent Business Alliance.

Sphere of influence: Jimenez, owner of Inkwood Books, and Ferenc, owner of the Mise en Place restaurant, formed TIBA in 2004 to connect local, independent business in Tampa and market the benefits of shopping independently to area residents; since then, 150 establishments have joined. Ferenc also sits on the boards of Tampa Bay & Company (a local tourism organization), Tampa Downtown Partnership and Creative Tampa Bay. Jimenez is a board member of the American Independent Business Alliance, a national umbrella organization promoting independents.

How they make a difference: Through TIBA, Jimenez and Ferenc fight against the homogenization of Tampa. They organize two major outreach campaigns -- Independents Week in July and America Unchained in November -- to raise awareness. They also push the importance of investing in independents to city officials and tourism boards. Recently, they've networked with businesses in Sarasota and St. Petersburg to assist them in starting their own Independent Business Alliances.

CL: How has the state of Tampa Bay independent businesses changed since you founded TIBA?

Ferenc: This issue is on the short list of a lot of other people. It's even on the list of the development community, in that you'll see that some of our most successful developers are the ones who are addressing this "sense of place" issue. They need to build their communities in a way to involve the community and create this sense of place, because that's what real urban living is about.

It's on the minds of people from a commercial perspective, and it's on the short list of Creative Tampa Bay and Tampa Bay & Company, because they need to promote what's unique about Tampa -- the personalities and businesses that create our cultural texture. The Downtown Partnership sees independents as the first ones that will come downtown, and indeed that's true.

Even in the Riverwalk committee, they're talking about making a proposal to open businesses along the Riverwalk. Well, the people they're going to turn to is independents. So, they reach out to our organization to float some of their ideas, to see what's realistic. So I think that is the biggest thing that has changed.

Jimenez: I think at the same time it's in the popular culture, the whole idea of localism. ... It's really about protecting and keeping authentic what makes your place your place. What keeps Tampa, Tampa. From my perspective, the best selling nonfiction books of the year are things like Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. There's the proliferation of things like farmer's markets. There's a study I just heard quoted recently that when you go to a farmer's market you have 20 interactions with people. You have actual relationships. When you go to a big supermarket, you might have two, more likely to have one.

Even on the state level, the state tourism authorities have campaigned on small-town Florida, keeping that authentic and making that a tourist attraction. I think popular culture and the powers-that-be see this as something to pay attention to.

Is it harder to shop at local, independent businesses today than it was four years ago?

Ferenc: I don't think so. I think the local movement has done two things. I think it's kept some people around that might, otherwise, not have been. And I think it has given energy to some entrepreneurs who said, "I'm going to go ahead and do this. I'm going to open my store." I will say that you don't have the same hardware options that you used to.

What is the biggest misconception about independent businesses?

Ferenc: I think it's probably the consumer conception that it costs more at an independent, that chains are cheaper. And that it's not just a little bit [more expensive], but a big difference.

Jimenez: There are studies left and right that have poked holes in that. There was a Consumer Reports study that showed the cost of prescription drugs in independent pharmacies tends to be less than national chains. I think that's something people would be surprised to know about. ... I think that books like the Big Box Swindle really show -- not only on the individual or family basis, but in the terms of the cost to the community, in terms of the tax subsidies and special considerations into bringing in some outside business -- if that money was spent locally with local independent businesses, it would be much better for the long run.

Ferenc: It's a hard message to get across to people as you walk down the aisle of a big box or chain store, and they've really delivered that message home to you, in a bunch of different ways, that they're cheap. They've claimed it so much, you don't even look to prove it anymore. You now accept it. So that's where you think you're going to have to go to spend your dollar in the best way. I think that misconception is hard to battle.

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