The Free Hand of the Marketplace

After years of persistent energy, Chatham Marketplace is at long last opened for business in Chatham Mill several blocks north of the Chatham County courthouse on 15-501.

This community now has a locally owned and operated place to buy groceries, which has at its heart, the idea of making local produce and wares available to its customers.

That may sound simple enough, but providing a local marketplace in a global economy is an exceedingly difficult thing to do.

At the heart of our market thinking is the idea that consumers will always act in their economic self-interest, and will always procure goods from the lowest cost producer. In our current world, that can leave our local economy in shambles.

Since North Carolinians can no longer compete in textiles, we watch as our textile industry moves to far away places that can deliver cheaper wares. First textiles, then furniture, and on and on such that our country’s manufacturing days are rapidly fading into a carbon coated sunset.

Although we can put up protectionist trade barriers, and cry foul over working conditions and lax environmental regulations in our competitor’s lands, the reality is that this is how we like it. The free hand of the market is working great. It is in our best interest to get cheaper goods, and voila, we are awash with cheap stuff.

Enter Chatham Marketplace. With its thirty new jobs, and it’s roughly four thousand square feet of renovated retail space, it’s now jumped into our local economy and is ready for trade.

Like all the other consumers in the free market, my self-interest comes first.

I like the fact that their milk from Maple View Farms is cheaper than the milk at Food Lion.

What I will pay for a product is one consideration, and I have others that influence my purchasing decisions. A central factor for me is time. If I can get the product I want quicker, my self-interest is better served. Since my travels mostly include Pittsboro, I find Chatham Marketplace to be a tremendous time saver. In the free market that we cherish, time is money, which makes time almost as important to me as the price of the product.

Another critical consideration for me is fuel. Since I drive around exclusively on B100 biodiesel, which is more expensive than petroleum, I tend to watch my fuel consumption like a hawk. Included in everybody’s price for groceries is the cost of fuel.

Since I am in business in Chatham County, a strong local economy is good for me, which is why I try to purchase my goods and services locally. Dollars spent in an economy tend to circulate around and around before leaving town. The other day I went into Blue Sky Equestrian, which has recently opened downtown. A sticker on the door referred to this circulation saying, “Buy Local. Spend it Here, Keep it Here.”

Monetary circulation is commonly measured with a “multiplier.” The multiplier is a number that counts how many times a dollar travels through our local economy before heading for some place else. Chatham County’s multiplier has been steadily dropping during my brief sixteen years here. When we once boasted multipliers of 7, and 5, we are now seeing multipliers of 2 and 1.9.

That means that when I used to go to the local hardware store, where I would spend a dollar, that same dollar would travel from local vendor to local vendor seven times before ending up in the cash box of someone far away. Today, if I spend money at J. Henry, or Carolina Hardware, the chances of my dollar being spent again in town is pretty high.
If I head out to Lowe’s on the bypass, however, chances are good my dollar will leave town immediately, where it will circulate in someone else’s economy.

This concept is at the heart of NC Plenty, a local currency that circulates out of Carrboro and includes Pittsboro in its limited geographical area. It makes sense that Chatham Marketplace accepts the Plenty at face value.

Local businesses, like Chatham Marketplace, offer a chance to trap dollars in our local economy, and by re-circulating them to local growers and merchants, there is an opportunity to enrich us all. The other day I joined Mary (Chatham Marketplace’s manager) on a trip to Lindley Mill near Eli Whitney. They mill complete lines of organic flours, and spelts, and sell them for less money than Wal-Mart.

Other consumers will have other considerations that influence their grocery buying habits, and those people will also find Chatham Marketplace serves their best interest. Some may be interested in food that is organic, or natural. Others may be consumers of supplements.

Selection will also drive buying decisions. One night when dining on the porch of Chatham Marketplace, I heard a patron quip, “It’s the best sushi between here and Jordan Lake.”

The other day, when a friend of mine was loading up on Celebrity Dairy goat cheese for an impending road trip, I bumped into Farmer Doug, who had recently dropped off a load of cucumbers. His cucumbers are grown in Moncure, which is about ten miles away. He picks them, and delivers them to Chatham Marketplace. When I buy them there, take them home and serve them, I can still taste the day’s sun.

No need to shrink wrap. Or to store them on refrigerated trucks. Not a lot of imported petroleum went into their production or delivery to market. Doug’s cucumbers are merely a delightful stop-gap before our own cucumbers fill the back garden.

Last night as I was leaving Chatham Marketplace with some beer that was brewed in Asheville and some meat that was raised in Silk Hope, I bumped into Eric Henry from T.S. Designs. He’s an apparel merchant from Burlington. Eric is making a stand in the textile trade by selling organic cotton products that are made in America. Rather than close his factory, he has retooled his business to address the “sustainability niche.” He was unloading boxes and boxes of product which have been successfully selling at Chatham Marketplace.

As I headed for home I could not help but reflect on how “it’s working.” Years of planning, and raising money, and meeting, have paid off. Consumers who value products from our local economy, from early cucumbers to t-shirts, are now able to get them conveniently in Pittsboro.

Which is exactly the way a market is supposed to work.

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"This is a wonderful, often funny, and inspiring book. Lyle Estill weaves a tapestry of stories of local people and places that, taken together, begin to form the outlines of sustainable, self-reliant communities united by the desire to cooperate for the common good. Small is Possible offers hope and encouragement to those engaged in the difficult but rewarding task of reviving communities that have been devastated by globalization, corporate greed, and apathy. Creating strong, caring, local communities offers one of life's biggest adventures--and opportunities."
Greg Pahl, author