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Are you a Lion King or the Villain?

It’s a jungle out there—so where do you fit into our Fairfield County “Circle of Life”?

For better or worse, life in our neck of the New England jungle is sort of comparable to the Disney movie, The Lion King: Everybody plays a role in the ongoing survival of the food chain.

Here’s what I mean: Locally-owned businesses need clientele and customers in order to thrive, so that towns stay viable, so that towns are desirable to new residents, so that new businesses want to move in, so that taxes can be more affordable for residents, so that residents are motivated to search for services and products locally, so that they are able to patronize local businesses …and the local “circle of life” continues.

Where I live in Wilton, it’s a VERY relevant issue, as it is all over lower Fairfield County.    

According to a survey done this year by the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, during the recession only 46 percent of Fairfield County business were profitable, down significantly from a high of 84 percent in 2007. Despite a slight upswing in 2010, the number of businesses turning a profit by 2011 was only 53 percent.

We’re still struggling.

In Wilton, we have seen new businesses open in town over the last year, but alarmingly many businesses have shuttered their doors, falling victim to high rents, declining foot traffic and the overall black cloud of the ongoing recession.

Those factors were definite issues for Michelle Palanzo, who , from Wilton to a more affordable town. Michelina’s had been a Wilton fixture for 10 years.

“You spend a lot of money per square foot, how many $2 danishes or $2 cookies can I sell in a month to cover the rent and still be able to make a living myself. It limits the kind of specialty stores that can come in and make a town like Wilton have the charm, it takes that away.”

Echoing the sentiment was Eva Rapesi, who in my town after being open less than a year.

“People don’t really go into a store as much to buy cards. They go online—it’s easier for people to use, if you go online, you don’t have to have a reason to actually walk into a store. Or they go to a Party City. We were sort of an afterthought for customers.”

I think foremost in the local “Circle of Life” equation is the role of the consumer—we have to be conscious about supporting our business community by shopping locally. Locally-owned businesses can’t thrive without customers, and if they can’t thrive, the circle breaks.

Yes, in some ways, there’s always going to be the element of survival of the fittest—the businesses making the wisest decisions to attract customers are going to be the ones who come out alive at the end of the day. But unlike our mindless counterparts at the bottom of nature’s real life food chain, the key is that we have the power to understand our role in the county’s business lifecycle and we need to consciously remain an active participant.

We consumers have the ability to recognize something deeper—exactly who our local businesses are, that they are our neighbors who make up the fabric of local and regional life. It’s more likely those local business owners are invested in the community because they live right there in the community. They’re the parents of your kids’ friends, they’re shopping in the next supermarket aisle, they live next door.

And they give back to a greater extent to local nonprofits—three-hundred-and fifty-percent more.

That was something motivating Jeena Choi, owner of Wilton’s café, when she and a handful of other local business people recently united to organize a Santa Portrait Fundraiser, raising more than $900 for local families in need—families who would otherwise not be able to afford gifts this holiday season.

“At the Milkbar we see people who are out of work who stop in here to network or even just to get out of the house to keep sane. It’s an issue that is closer to home than you think, and the fundraiser was one way for us to support the community,” said Choi.

It’s less likely that a large, international coffee chain would dole out the bucks like that in such a targeted way at the local level. (hint, hint)

That kind of community support needs to be reciprocated by the community—by shopping local all year, but in other ways as well.

Patch started an effort to recognize the small businesses in the local communities we cover, called “Small Business Shout-out.” Timed to coincide with “Small Business Saturday,” it was a forum inviting readers to mention and recommend local retailers and businesses in the many places available on the website—in comments sections, on the front page, and elsewhere.

Some towns took advantage, others didn’t. (Thanks to the eight people in who spoke up; but where were you in or ?)

It’s personal recommendations that make me want to go into a shop and support that retailer. Look at the glowing review in the comments on a about the . Patch user Patty Shanahan wrote, “I LOVE the Great American Stamp store! They have such a large variety, I usually spend at least a hour there every time I go. I love that they have dozens of cards made up so I can get a lot of ideas, and they will help you come up with ideas too. Judy and her staff are incredible.”

Speak up, shout out, step forward with your voice (and your dollars) to support the local business community in your town, village, hamlet, city—whatever you call it.

Because we may not be New York City, but we are the face of the new Suburban Jungle.

Trent N December 12, 2011 at 08:19 PM
Great story. I shop local whenever I can, but some things in Wilton are just ludicrously expensive. Particularly the clothes. I simply can't afford to shop around River Road other than like, Stop and Shop. I'm sure a lot of others are like me too. It's a vicious cycle: property taxes mean inventory prices have to be higher to turn a profit, but that means only the well-to-do can shop in (a lot of) Wilton. And then the shops fail.
KMP December 12, 2011 at 11:07 PM
Trent - have you tried the Turnover Shop under the Village Market? It's great for home goods, books, the odd lamp or knick-knack, vintage jewelry and clothes, plus proceeds go to the Wilton schools and other local organizations!
Michael Graupner December 13, 2011 at 01:37 AM
People are looking for value, ie. a quality product or service at a good price... and they will go wherever it is readily available. If it is not here in Wilton, they will go elsewhere. All this nonsense about "circle of life" is a leftist's dream.
John December 13, 2011 at 12:27 PM
How's that hope and change working for you?
Brian Kesselman December 13, 2011 at 12:57 PM
I agree. Given the choice between Caraluzzi's and Stop and Shop I will shop locally. I know that some of the money I spend at both places goes into the payroll for local employees, but more of the owners' profits get reinvested locally from the locally owned stores. There are certainly boundaries. I use a chain pharmacy because the local one is not open during convenient hours for our schedules. Michael is right about looking for value. But part of my buying decision includes my values. If the difference in price is nominal I'll accept a slightly higher price for local goods or services. If the delta is too steep, I weigh that and opt for online purchases or box stores. Calling it a leftist dream is dismissive and off point. And rhetorical questions meant to cull political bias are fine if one intends only to cast a vote in one direction or another, but don't add any constructive dialog to our conversations. Whether you are a Leftist Nut, Right-Wing Loony, Reagan Democrat, Anderson Independent, Perot Groupie, Bush 1'er, W'fan, Tea Partier, Green Partier, Keg Partier or just a regular voter with opinions, isn't it nicer to discuss the topic at than to take jabs and incite ire? Or is it all about the fight and not about the opinion? Maybe patch.com should open a political forum so people can blow off steam there, while I read the articles, form opnions, and buy locally.

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