Photos by Ruta Smith

‘Keep It Local’

A small community sprawling from the intersection of Magnolia Road and Highway 17 harbors a unique and unassuming-at-first-glance local charm that cascades into a vibrant and colorful scene with each step   along its art-splashed walkways. It’s that vibe that one local advocacy group is trying to protect with a new proposal.

An idea pitched by Lowcountry Local First would establish an ordinance that would prevent new branches of formula businesses from planting roots in the Avondale neighborhood.

“It’s such an independent community, business-wise,” said Lauren Gellatly, the group’s interim executive director. “That’s such a part of the identity right now, but there’s nothing there to ensure that will always be the case.”

The bustling West Ashley district is characterized by its dozens of locally owned businesses and their brightly colored walls. 

Lowcountry Local First’s interim executive director Lauren Gellatly said LLF has a track record of handling similar measures in the area | Photo by Ruta Smith

A ‘sense of warmth’
“It’s pretty obvious that Avondale is already operating like a one-of-a-kind little Main Street,” said Charleston City Councilwoman Carol Jackson, who represents James Island. “As far as I know, from the support of the constituents there, they want to do everything they can to help Avondale as it is to be a success.” 

Gellatly said Jackson has been a supportive voice for the project within city leadership, along with the area’s city council representative Ross Appel, who did not reply to requests for comment. 

“What makes it so special is the hardworking small business community, of course, and people love that we’re not big chain stores and the uniqueness of each restaurant,” said Debbie Nelson, who owns Gullah Gourmet, located a block off the main drag. “Having that sense of warmth when you walk in the door — it feels safe.” 

Nelson said her gift shop is one of a few in the area that are still locally owned. Many are now corporate, or have been driven out of business by larger companies like Amazon, she said. 

“Having to compete with something like Olive Garden isn’t good for any of these businesses,” said Al Di La bar manager Mike Crimmins. “This proposal is something I would love to see move forward.”

Al Di La bar manager Mike Crimmins said he wants the proposal to move forward | Photo by Ruta Smith

Formula businesses, those with a standardized service or merchandise for at least 10 other national locations, are often stiff competition for locally owned small businesses that can’t keep up with the prices or supplies of chains. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, mom-and-pop businesses have had it harder than ever. 

“Small businesses are bleeding out right now,” Gellatly said. “Anything we can do to give them a leg up in this environment is something we should be seriously considering.”

Areas like Avondale haven’t had to compete much with chains; instead, business owners and community members have enjoyed an almost entirely local business district. But, that does not mean it will remain that way.

“I feel like we are in the right direction as it is, but certainly it could totally change if a large chain were to occupy one of these spaces,” said Verde owner Jennifer Ferrebee. “We’ve been lucky that that hasn’t been the case as of yet.”

Verde owner Jennifer Ferrebee said Avondale is lucky to have not had to compete much with chains yet | Courtesy Verde

The idea is echoed by Gellatly. 

“Of course, we always get comments like, ‘Avondale will never be full of chain businesses,’” Gellatly said. “But, we’ve seen it time and time again that chain businesses want to swoop in and locate in a vibrant area, so to say it can’t or won’t happen is just not realistic.”

According to a report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), which analyzes local business statistics nationwide, formula business zoning is a long-term method for communities looking to support their small businesses, especially during the pandemic. 

According to the ILSR, a growing number of cities and towns have begun enacting policies that restrict the foundation of formula businesses.

“Having saturated malls and other shopping areas, many formula retailers and restaurants are increasingly locating in downtowns and neighborhood business districts,” an ILSR report reads. “Because they all like to follow one another, it’s not uncommon for formula businesses to arrive in an area en masse, squeezing out independents and causing a speculative run-up in rents that results in the wholesale transformation of a business district almost overnight.”

That sort of large-scale migration can have long-term economic consequences, ILSR said, as the community loses its distinctive appeal and offers no further opportunities for independent businesspeople. Formula business zoning doesn’t prohibit a national chain from setting up shop, but it does force them to open a coffee shop that is distinct from all of its other outlets, retaining a sense of uniqueness in the area. 

“Formula business zoning is an incredibly effective policy tool that’s been around for about two decades now and in place in more than 20 communities across the country ranging from very small neighborhoods to very large cities,” Gellatly said. 

They have a track record here, Gellatly said.

A community effort
Some variations of this sort of ordinance are in effect as close to home as Folly Beach and Sullivan’s Island. Folly Beach’s formula business ordinance was enacted in 2018 after the proposal by Lowcountry Local First, but as with all such ordinances, it isn’t the same as any other.

“Our ordinance is a community character ordinance,” said Folly Beach City Administrator Aaron Pope. “We feel like here on the island we have a unique commercial district, referred to as ‘Funky Folly.’ It’s our own little beach atmosphere, and that’s the root of the ordinance.”

The flexibility to define your own terms is one of the strongest selling points of formula business zoning, allowing policy to be tailored to specific communities at a minute level. 

“The community can really come up with their own definition for what the ordinance is and what they govern,” Gellatly explained. “You can frame them so that new formula businesses are strictly prohibited. Or, the other approach you can take is requiring that formula businesses have to obtain a special exception.

“That wouldn’t mean they can’t locate there,” she said. “It just provides an extra step that gives the community a chance to weigh in and say, ‘You know what, we really need a Starbucks,’ or they can say, ‘We don’t need a Starbucks; we already have local coffee shops.’”

Like Avondale, Folly Beach wasn’t being squeezed by big business, but city officials were looking to protect the character of the area, Pope said. “We were fortunate that here on the island itself, we may not have been under a tremendous amount of pressure from national or even regional businesses,” he said. “In one way, it was prevention from a problem that wasn’t yet knocking on our door.”

Jackson said the policy needs to be precisely targeted to be effective. “You use your scalpel and design something that really fits the community and the goals of people who are proud to support their local establishments,” she said.

“We, of course, would love for it to be a community-focused process,” Gellatly said. “We first and foremost serve the local business community; we want them to weigh in on how this might look.”

And so far, it looks like multiple businesses in the area have firm ideas of what makes Avondale special, and precisely what aspects of the community they are attempting to safeguard. 

“The family-orientedness of the businesses directly around is what makes the community so unique, and it also comes from all the people that live here too,” Ferrebee said. “There’s so much good energy shared by all the people that live in Avondale and who walk to the businesses there. Anything we can do to help preserve that really makes sense, given the dynamic of Avondale and the community there.” 

Gellatly is currently in the process of a first draft of the proposed ordinance, which she plans to discuss with the city’s West Ashley Revitalization Committee in May. Until then, the timeline is a bit fuzzy, but folks interested in discussing the policy can look forward to a more hands-on period of time closer to the meeting.

“We are excited about doing more outreach in the area,” Gellatly said. “We are already having conversations with some business owners and residents, and in addition to the City Council and West Ashley Revitalization Committee, we are looking forward to the process of these community conversations.”