May 15, 2014

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Protecting the People: Meet Mark Strella

Main Street USA is being invaded. Surrounded on all sides by suburbs already saturated with mega-chains, corporate America is turning to the last remaining outposts of independence: our humble inner city neighborhoods and their locally run businesses. The battle is being lost, and the massive franchises are slowly pushing out the family owned shops and restaurants that create a community’s unique culture.

            But some people have risen through the ranks to face-off against the big box marts and their billions. Mark Strella gives a damn about being able to buy a locally designed bag, from a locally owned shop. He is a defender of the independents, a protector of the people, a knight for the vulnerable neighborhoods of New Orleans. He is a key player in Stay Local, the city of New Orleans’ organization dedicated to fostering a strong local economy, that connects local businesses with customers, resources, and each other.

            Stay Local is in constant turf war against national franchises and corporations who are following the current population trend of migrating from the burbs to the city. All the cool kids now are opting to live in the city (as opposed to the developments and planned suburban communities of their parents), and the big nationals have taken notice. Neighborhood sized big-box-marts and slimmed-down versions of mega-chains are being designed to infiltrate inner city neighborhoods to replace generations-old mom n’ pop establishments and displace many of our mothers and fathers.    

             New Orleans’ local shopping paradise, Magazine Street, is a perfect example of how a culturally significant “main-street-USA” is under threat. The big boys keep eyeballing prime real estate waiting for their opportunity to get a foothold in the neighborhood. So how does Mark protect Magazine?

            The first weapons the Stay Local team has in their arsenal are regulations and existing zoning policies to prevent encroachment from big-industry moving in on historic landmarks. They also rely on educating the existing locally owned business on how increase their revenues and therefore remain competitive. Mark explains that a small shop owner may know some parts of how to run their store, but often times they are not experts in all the pieces needed to run a successful business, like marketing, book keeping, merchandizing or how to hire and manage employees. Stay Local creates programs geared towards independent retailers that will connect them with successful business owners and mentors who will show them proven revenue increasing strategies. And then a big part of the Stay Local battle-plan is to communicate directly with real estate developers and get them interested in working with local independent businesses instead of just taking the easy way out and handing over leases to eager franchises.

            There is a constant war raging right in the middle of our favorite streets, yet most of us pay no attention. We take for granted the little sandwich shop on the corner, the boutique selling niche items, the neighborhood’s ancient book shop. The things a neighborhood truly values would likely not survive for long if left to fend for themselves, now that they are encircled by a sea of sharks. What Mark stresses the most, is that the community needs to constantly remember to set parameters to protect these local businesses that they love.This is not only what is best for the neighborhoods, but it’s also in the best interest of the city on a long term scale. Give a damn now. Because once you stop caring, McDonalds’s moves in and communities become generic.

If you give a damn about “staying local” and want to help Mark on his mission, check out the Stay Local site.