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Small Businesses Collaborate to Weather the Economic Storm

While large businesses are showing signs of economic recovery, economists and other observers have begun to express concern that small businesses are still hurting. A few dozen Central Ohio based entrepreneurs are bucking the trend and finding strength in numbers.

Several groups under several headings in central Ohio do more than talk about shopping, dining and seeking entertainment locally. They practice it. Simply Living, Local Matters, Live in UA (Upper Arlington) Shop in UA, Dine Originals Columbus are a few of the locally focused groups in the Columbus area.

Dine Originals began in 2003 and now counts 45 member restaurants. Each is locally-owned, features made-from-scratch cuisine and thinks collaboration is more important than competition. Elizabeth Lessner is president and CEO of four of the restaurants. Sitting on a stool in one of her eateries - Surly Girl Saloon in the Short North - Lessner gives an example of how working together saves time and money for small business owners.

"I've always bought recyclable materials but I was looking for something biodegradable, something you could throw in a compost pile. I was having trouble finding it. Called a peer at Cup o Joe's, and he put me in touch with his purveyor and by working together, we get lower pricing on our biodegradable packaging."

Lessner says, together, restaurants have more purchasing power, and that helps to save money on everything from doggy bags to bottles of ketchup. They share expenses for advertising and marketing that might break the budget for an individual owner. They also recommend other Dine Originals restaurants to their friends.

Community involvement is another theme common among groups with a "buy local" theme. Marilyn Welker is director of Simply Living, an organization that promotes social change and environmental responsibility. She says they want to see money stay in the local community to support each other and build resilient businesses. Welker says one Simply Living member is currently working with a local credit union to build a community development loan fund to support small businesses that otherwise have a hard time getting loans.

Insurance agent Ryan Morgan is operations director for Brilliant, a boutique division of a local, traditional insurance agency. He works only with small, independent businesses and artists. He features them on his web site and stays in touch. This day, Morgan is sitting at a small table behind a lap top, speaking up as needed when one of his clients, barista Andy Luck fires up the brewing equipment to prepare an expresso.

Luck Brothers Coffee House in Grandview Heights supports local groups including Available Light Theatre and their recent play "How to Stay Human" which focused on the environment. Luck says he supplied the group with coffee that is fair trade organic and some brewing equipment that doesn't need filters. They will compost the coffee grounds. So, he says, "it's an interesting display of how you can do things thoughtfully."

Back at the Surly Girl Saloon, Elizabeth Lessner waves toward two dozen beer tap handles featuring less well-known names. Surly Girl features all U-S and largely local beers. Another in Lessner's restaurant group, Dirty Frank's Hot Dog Palace, features Amish butter. Lessner says, buying closer to home supports other small businesses and saves money on fuel charges.

Insurance agent Ryan Morgan notes his background is in creative writing, and his 16 clients are his inspiration.

"I'm not making much money, but the reward I get is working with people who are really passionate about what they do. To start something from scratch, you have to be passionate."