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Herald project will focus on local economic solutions

Thursday proved to be a glorious evening for Manatee’s annual Hob Nob barbecue. As I walked toward the tented booths circled on the Sarasota Polo Grounds, I saw a lot of familiar faces among the 800-some entrepreneurs, business leaders and civic-minded folks.

The crowd was upholding both definitions of hobnob: “to drink together,” and “to associate familiarly.” The mood was jovial, and there was no lack of appetizers, beer, wine and circles of conversation.

But there was an ominous undercurrent this year. Few of those conversations got very far before someone in the group asked another in that hushed tone, “How’s your job?” “Are you still in business?” “How bad is this going to get?”

“This” is an unemployment rate of 10.1 percent in Manatee County, outpacing state and national levels. “This” is knowing close friends and family who are smart, well-educated and hard workers who still can’t find a job. “This” is knowing that 2009 isn’t looking any better than the year we just survived.

Another question that permeated almost every conversation: Do you think Obama’s stimulus plan will work? Regardless of your politics, you have to hold on to the hope that it will. But it’s also clear that we can’t put our lives on hold to wait and see. The effects probably won’t be known for months, even years. And the growing need in our community is pressing on us. We need to figure out how to help each other now.

So how do we create our own local stimulus package? That may be the most important question facing us today, and it’s the headline for a Bradenton Herald economic focus panel that Business Editor Jennifer Rich and I are pulling together. We’re calling on a diverse group of business and community leaders.

And the calls have brought a welcome surprise: Almost everyone is responding with an emphatic “Yes.” “We need to take action now.” “We need to pull together now.” “This couldn’t have come at a better time.” “I’m going to start eating my Wheaties and bring some muscle to this project.”

With that level of commitment, we hope to generate viable ways to help spur local spending, keep businesses afloat, create jobs — and keep affordable roofs over our heads.

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting report last week that looked at how cities and counties throughout the nation are doing the same thing: “launching home-grown economic-stimulus plans aimed at spurring local spending and keeping small businesses afloat during the recession.” The report found a broad spectrum of ideas, from a city that offers a $30 gift card to anyone spending $300 at local businesses, to one that promises free tuition at the local community college to those who lost their jobs.

It also notes, however, that local initiatives can accomplish only so much. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley captured that frustration in this quote: “How can a community organize the unfreezing of the credit markets?”

Still, highlighting the value of “local” holds promise. Most economists agree that it’s time to encourage spending. As the WSJ article notes: Such campaigns tend to help build morale among shoppers and business owners alike. The biggest recent losses in our local job market have been in retail and professional business services.

A lot of grassroots efforts are already taking hold here. We’ve written about some, including Robert Kay and his 70-years-young wife, Jean Hofmann-Kay, inventors of the Gutter Clutter Buster. When it started looking like the economy was going to pull the plug on their electrical business, they put their ingenuity to work and came up with a new gadget. Where can you find it? At our local hardware store, Crowder Bros., where it’s proudly displayed.

Then there’s Ron and Mary Unger, who had the wisdom to create their own currency almost two decades ago. They founded the International Bartering Exchange in Sarasota, and its membership has increased by more than 50 percent to 600-plus members in the past six months.

“In good times, bartering is a way to fill occasional down time or move excess inventory,” Mary Unger told Herald reporter Donna Wright. “In bad times, bartering is a survival tool that can help businesses afloat and grow their markets while conserving cash flow.”

Those are just two snapshots of bright spots in these hard times. We need your help, too. What has changed in your life because of the economy? Your insights and ideas will definitely help us.

As I asked in my blog last week: Let’s figure out how to capture this opportunity and emerge from this crisis a better community.

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Joan Krauter, Herald executive editor, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 2000.

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