Guest Column: If we think locally, we all benefit

Sustainable Long Island honored Main Street investor Dee Muma last Friday with a “Getting It Done” award at the 5th Annual Rally for Resources Conference. She received the award  — designed to recognize those who walk the walk rather than just talk  — for her work revitalizing a vacant building at 1 East Main Street in Riverhead.

In her acceptance speech, Ms. Muma observed that Long Island’s mom-and-pop downtowns have been gutted by big box competition and need some guided reinvention and imagination to thrive once again.

Ms. Muma’s concept is to attract people back to downtown through food–sourcing from local farmers while supporting the revolution in thinking about buying locally that has taken place over the last 10 years.

At last week’s conference in Bethpage, keynote speaker Woody Tasch, author of “Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money” and founder of the “slow money” movement — an offshoot of the “slow food” movement — delivered a basic message urging us all to contemplate the lifestyle we desire.

And then to put our money behind it.  What do we teach our children? Education. Cooperation. Partnerships. Commitment.

Well, why not live what we teach?

The slow money goal is to drive local social and capital investment into local systems — the people and places we know, which include local businesses, small food enterprises, organic farms and local food systems.  A panel of Long Island experts that included East End notables such as Ms. Muma, Joe Gergela, Andrea Lohneiss, Dave Calone, and Marguerite Smith, discussed how slow money concepts apply to Long Island.

Mr. Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, questioned the federal government’s 75-year “cheap food policy” because, he contended, cheapest may not be best for the economy, community or our owns bodies and well being.

Rattling off a wealth of statistics, he noted that 37 percent of food is imported and 9 percent of incomes are spent on food. Mr. Gergela’s suggestion is to learn about food that is locally grown.

Mr. Gergela, through the farm bureau, has created something great for the East End and particularly the North Fork, where true agricultural heritage is stronger than ever, called the Long Island Grown campaign.  This is a grass roots branding effort  that includes food, water, products, values, family and roots of the Peconic region.

And while the Long Island Grown campaign encourages consumer awareness about where each dollar goes in terms of food production  — and slow money concepts tell us we need to take a good idea and run with it — the campaign does not pertain to just food. In the same way slow food concepts affect production and consumption, slow money can change our future.

We need to think about Long Island Grown for as many products and services as possible.

Mr. Calone, who chairs the Suffolk County Planning Commission, observed that when the middle class began to invest money it tended to be on Main Street, in the local stores and businesses. Now ,with a global economy, most people can invest oversees with a click of a mouse, basing their choices solely on quick returns.

Slow money is investment based in part on social ideals — how we relate to the world around us. And while it wouldn’t be fair or appropriate for government to compel social investing, the government can lead the way with incentives (or as in the case of Riverhead Supervisor Walter, wear out a few pairs of shoes by rolling out the red carpet for businesses looking to locate downtown).

Ms. Lohneiss, my predecessor in heading Riverhead’s Community Development Agency, touted the $30 million Empire State Development New York Healthy Food & Healthy Communities Fund.  This is good investment because statistics show better-fed students perform better in school and make better life choices when they understand that some of their food is grown locally.

Similarly, the New York State Main Street grant program (which has graciously awarded 3 grants totaling $900,000 to improve properties in downtown Riverhead) encourages contextual local investment.  So while government should not compel social investing, any government policy that values local resources, such as local businesses, people, water and food, is good long-term planning.

But Mr. Tasch stressed that we need to create a culture of the willing to keep the jobs and money here on the North Fork as a common-sense investment in our own communities. Mr. Tasch disputed that everything comes down to pricing and related the cheap food/cheap calories concept to America’s obsession with cheap products.  Most all of us can afford to buy locally grown food and products from local businesses , but maybe we just choose to spend our extra dollars on fancy sneakers from another continent.

Simple ideas are not always simple to implement, but Tasch noted, “Hard work can be rewarding.”

Downtowns are our homegrown victory gardens.  The East End has the opportunity to lead the way with real, livable communities with sustainable mind-sets. We know our neighbors, our business owners, our food, our water. We even know our old buildings.  Heart-centric development is long-term investment that provides a connection to community that money alone can’t buy. How do you use your energy, time and money?

Ms. Kempner is director of the Riverhead Community Development Agency and a Greenport Village trustee.