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Conference aims to boost local economy

Sarah Bishop is a big believer in the power of local business.

And next week, Bishop and others will have plenty of chances to show about 500 other local business boosters just what community-focused firms have helped accomplish in the Buffalo Niagara region.

Those local business advocates will be attending a four-day national conference that begins Tuesday and is organized by BALLE, a California-based nonprofit that is focused on helping communities grow stronger by building a strong core of Main Street businesses.

“We couldn’t be more excited to have BALLE come here to Buffalo and see the economic development that has taken place here through localist principles,” said Bishop, the executive director of Buffalo First!, a nonprofit group devoted to supporting local and sustainable businesses throughout the region.

BALLE typically moves its annual convention to different cities each year, in part to showcase how local business people and supporters have done things to help bolster their communities. Locally, those efforts include small steps, such as converting old grain elevators along the Buffalo River into a rock-climbing venue that could become another drawing card for the region’s waterfront revitalization efforts.

But they also include big changes, such as dramatic shifts in the region’s broader waterfront plans away from the original concept, which was built around a heavily subsidized Bass Pro outdoors store, to the current model that puts more of a premium on the Buffalo waterfront’s history and more focus on green space and smaller businesses.

The conference also will give visitors attending the session an opportunity to go on several lengthy tours of the region and its “living economy.” One tour, led by Christa Glennie Seychew, the owner of Feed Your Soul restaurant, will visit three of Buffalo’s urban farms.

Another tour, led by grass- roots activists Aaron Bartley and Anthony Armstrong, will focus on the successes – and challenges – of sustainable economic development, highlighting the city’s Olmstead parks system, the ongoing waterfront development, the efforts to preserve the Buffalo Central Terminal and PUSH Buffalo’s initiative to develop a community economy in a 25-square-block area of the city’s West Side.

“We really see this as a watershed moment for Buffalo First! and Buffalo at large,” Bishop said. “Not only are people going to see what’s happening in Buffalo and see the city in a different light, but it will have a real economic impact on Buffalo.”

Some of that economic impact will come from a “cash mob” that organizers are planning from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday and Bishop hopes will pump as much as $10,000 in sales for businesses along Elmwood Avenue. Previous cash mobs, a concept first tried in Buffalo that has since been tried in more than 44 other cities, have generated more than $10,000 in business for local merchants, and Bishop hopes the BALLE cash mob will approach that figure in one evening.

Michelle Long, BALLE’s executive director, said the conference, which will bring together social entrepreneurs, sustainable business advocates and funding sources, is an opportunity for so-called “localists” to learn from and work with each other by sharing stories of local initiatives that have been successful elsewhere.

The BALLE conference will be centered at Buffalo State College, but it also will hold events throughout the Elmwood Village area.