The Community Independent Business Alliance was formed 15 years ago, when local shop owners worried about the impact of a Borders bookstore that would soon open in Corvallis.

“Borders is gone, but CIBA is still here,” said Jack Wolcott, owner of Grass Roots Books & Music, during a forum at the Odd Fellows Hall in downtown Corvallis on Wednesday night.

Big box stores still are a threat, but another concern to local business people has emerged in the form of massive online retailers.

About 30 people attended “Helping Our Local Independent Businesses Thrive” and talked about fending off online sales and other issues.

“Independents can still compete successfully and win,” said Jeff Milchen, co-director and co-founder of the American Independent Business Alliance. Milchen was the featured speaker at the event, which was sponsored by CIBA and the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition.

AMIBA sprang out of the Boulder Independent Business Alliance in Colorado in 2001 and now is headquartered in Bozeman, Montana. The organization helps 90 community groups, including CIBA.

Milchen talked about how public education and communication with the media are vital to building a brand and a culture of support for local businesses.

He stressed that studies show customer satisfaction is higher at independent businesses, including restaurants.

“Hopefully, it’s going to be a more fun, personal experience shopping locally,” Milchen said.

Independent businesses contribute far more to communities than chain retailers, as their money is essentially recycled locally, he added.

Milchen recommended that local retailers band together and tally their donations to charity, backing the figures up with specific examples, to show their value.

Collective branding and marketing can be successful, Milchen said.

Milchen also suggested that CIBA start up a monthly newsletter and that the all-volunteer organization hire at least a part-time staff member to help coordinate efforts of the local business community.

A number of other issues were raised by local business people.

Bob Baird, owner of the Book Bin, talked about a national trend of declining foot traffic, saying that several Corvallis businesses had noticed a lack of customers.

Baird estimated that there had been a 10 percent decline in foot traffic annually in recent years.

“This is not just downtown,” Baird said, adding that it was affecting established restaurants, as well.

Kevin Ferguson of Willamette Valley Christian Supply said that retailers needed to market to Oregon State University’s growing international population.

April Hall Cutting of Wild Yeast Bakery wondered how market booths like hers could cooperate with brick-and-mortar stores. “We see ourselves as an independent business, but we don’t have a store,” she said.

Kate Lindburg, owner of Animal Crackers, said that studies show cities could start seeing lower property tax revenues if local businesses continue to shut down at a higher pace than in previous decades.

Kyle Odegard can be reached at kyle.odegard@lee.net, 541-812-6077 or via Twitter @KyleOdegard.

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