Building Great Places

After 5 p.m., it used to be that Downtown Phoenix became a ghost town because the city lacked the sustainable businesses and infrastructure that are needed to create a strong community, said Kimber Lanning, an Arizona business leader.

She’s been striving to change that.

A sense of community strengthens the core and provides a jumping off point for entrepreneurs, Lanning said as part of her speech, Building Great Places, which she delivered at Arizona State University.

We need to work together and have a common language on why this is important… Urban communities aren’t just built, they evolve.
— Kimber Lanning

Part of the issue is that two thirds of Arizonans migrate from somewhere else. Lanning believes we must create businesses that feel accountable to their community. This is the only way to fix the infrastructure including education and other neighborhood problems. Citizens from cities such as Chicago and New York rave about their hometowns as being places that celebrate community.

Lanning noticed a problem with the lack of pride that Arizonans have for their cities. People she met from other cities would rave about the mom and pop restaurants and shops, the tight-knit neighborhoods and all the events that were a short walk from their residences. 

To discuss this issue and possible solutions, ASU’s Sustainability Series hosted Kimber Lanning, the Founder and Executive Director of Local First Arizona. Local First Arizona is a non-profit organization that promotes and advocates locally owned businesses and educates the public as to how local businesses improve the economy and the culture of Arizona. As an entrepreneur and community-development expert, Lanning works to build vibrant, sustainable communities while inspiring a higher quality of life throughout Arizona. She founded Local First Arizona in 2003. Her presentation discussed the intricate relationship between urban environments, economies, finance, and local communities.

Lanning’s knack for spearheading businesses began at a young age. When she was only 19, Lanning opened a music store in Arizona. As a business owner, Lanning noticed a trend where talented people would stop by her store and tell her of all the exceptional things they were hired to do in other cities. Lanning was frustrated that her local community was missing out on great opportunities to showcase people and their diverse talents. She realized that citizens were lacking a connection of place to Downtown Phoenix and elsewhere throughout the state.

Lanning noted that when citizens spend their money at chain restaurants and stores instead of at local businesses, they inadvertently are diminishing the amount of jobs that will be offered in their community. For example, Starbucks employs or contracts with far fewer people in Arizona than owners of local coffee shops do. A local coffee shop would likely hire, among other things, an accountant, financial adviser, graphic designer, website developer and an attorney to help ensure the success of the business. A chain, such as Starbucks, would not hire those Arizonan workers because the company already possesses people with those skillsets at its headquarters. Lanning called this the multiplier effect because the action of buying Starbucks coffee will diminish the job market for secondary and tertiary jobs in the long run.

Lanning said that for every two jobs created at chain stores, three jobs are lost in the local community. If local businesses began to dominate the empty spaces in downtown more jobs would be created in the community, which would attract more people to inhabit the area.

In order to preserve the history of downtown, Lanning said our city must reuse the existing downtown infrastructure. Buildings that illustrate their years and their funky architecture add diversity to the city. Old buildings that display character have been reused to house some of the most popular, high-end cuisine in Arizona. The award-winning Japanese restaurant, Nobuo at Teeter House, is located in the Bouvier-Teeter house that was built in 1899. These buildings tell a story about the beginning of Phoenix evolving into a city. Besides preserving culture, it is also more sustainable to reuse the building instead of demolishing it and throwing the scrap material into a landfill, Lanning said. 

Lanning was introduced to the audience by Raveen Arora. Arora, owner of locally owned and operated Dhaba Cuisine, is a member of Local First Arizona. Arora explained that Lanning is an expert in developing diverse and inclusive communities. She also excels at operating her multiple business ventures and has helped other local businesses to prosper. She has earned the trust of her colleagues, clients, and employees. Lanning’s first employee is still working for her today.

To be a good leader you need to be able to bleed for your team. Kimber bleeds for her 3,000 members.
— Raveen Arora

After listening to Lanning’s speech an ASU sustainability professor, Karen Fehr, believes it is important that Downtown Phoenix separates itself from the typical “concrete jungle” feel of a city and instead exude an inclusive, open-air vibe with ample green spaces. Lanning said multiple studies illustrated that connection to the surrounding environment leads to more civic activity.

Lanning said that while the issues in her speech may seem cumbersome, there are easy solutions for improving the city’s economy and community. First, citizens must support local restaurants, theaters, barbershops, farmers markets, and many other local businesses. Secondly, the public must encourage large corporations and institutions within Arizona, such as Arizona State University, to hire local talent. Lastly, individuals should become advocates of their community by helping to support policy change that will improve our city’s community, economy and infrastructure.

Lanning said we as consumers hold the power. Our wallets are the weapon of change that can continue the transformation of Phoenix from a ghost town to a vibrant city that supports sustainable, local businesses and a strong community.


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This article was written by Nicole Randock. Nicole is a junior at Arizona State University studying broadcast journalism and sustainability. It is her goal, as a broadcast journalist/meteorologist, to use her position to increase awareness regarding climate change.