The Optimistic Futurist: Local gifts card boost economy, jobs

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 2, 2011

By Dr. Francis Koster
 With the economy in the dump, and faith in national decisionmakers at an all-time low, is it time to take local action to create jobs and protect local employers — can a community do well, by doing good?
Some communities think they can, and are proving it. In these communities, the entrepreneurs and local small business people, in partnership with a small local or regional bank or credit union have created “Local Gift Cards.” These cards are branded to be used to buy goods and services from locally owned businesses only — not the big box stores and other business that ship money out of the community.
In Dane County, Wisc., a group of local business people started the Dane County Buy Local gift card program. They got a group of locally owned businesses to agree to both sell and accept the cards, and got the local bank to create and process them. The cards are basically just like any other debit card — but they have a “Buy Local Dane County” logo. It took only two months from agreement on the plan until it was possible to have the cards in the hands of customers.
The cards are now available to be bought and used by 538 member business. You can learn more about the program at
In Chattanooga, Tenn., the Buy It Downtown program started in 2007 by Buy it Local, LLC, in cooperation with the local downtown partnership. A group of 16 businesses agreed to participate by selling and redeeming the Buy It Downtown cards. Now the local gift card has more than 90 participating merchants and has created a multimillion dollar impact on the local economy, directing hundreds of thousands of dollars each to individual merchants. In its first year, the cards facilitated more than $100,000 in business to local business but then has experienced double- and triple-digit growth, even throughout the economic recession. Business owners realized that the customers often used the cards to pay for only a portion of a purchase, resulting in leveraging an additional 40 percent in business beyond the face value of the card to the local business, plus the impact on the community resulting from recycling the dollars locally. Since its initial card program development, Buy it Local has created Buy it*Cards, a program and system it provides to other local areas to create their own local gift card program and track the results, as well on its unique web-based system. You can learn more about Chattanooga’s program at and Buy it*Cards at
This kind of program has a significant impact on the local economy because each dollar that stays in a local community and is spent locally keeps changing hands in a way that raises the economy of that community. The landscape company buys a new mower from a locally owned company; the mower seller buys printing from the locally owned printing shop; that person buys locally grown flowers for his wife from the local florist — and they all have a bit more to put into the church collection basket, or to hire their unemployed neighbor.
Let’s use Mr. Jones as an example. If Santa flew over Mr. Jones’ town in the midst of high unemployment and scattered money all around, and every one of the unemployed including Mr. Jones put it under their bed, they might feel richer — but Mr. Jones would still be unemployed. If they took their money and bought a product from a foreign land or a big box store, they may have changed that wealth to a different form — but Mr. Jones is still unemployed.
But if Santa dropped gift cards that were branded to spend at locally owned and operated businesses, they could not only have a product; their friends and neighbors would have jobs — and a snowball has begun to roll down hill because those folks would in turn create local economic demand, which could result in Mr. Jones becoming employed.
And these “buy local” gift cards are actually more useful than those issued by a single store because they can be used at many different kinds of stores, ranging from locally owned dry cleaners to locally owned art galleries, pharmacies, tax preparers and so forth. With the “buy local” community, these cards can be used anywhere a Visa card is accepted.
One of the measures of the health of a local economy is how many times a dollar changes hands before it leaves the area — the more money shipped out, the poorer the local economy. Buying local raises the number of times a dollar is spent locally — and local gift cards help that happen.
Our future is more under our control than many think. There are lots of ways towns and communities can take control of their future again. For more ideas, see my website,

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Francis Koster got his doctorate at the Program For The Study Of The Future at the University of Massachusetts. His website, displays proven success stories which are good investments, job creating, good for the public health — and replicable in your community. Email: