In the past two years “Shop Your Neighborhood” programs have been springing up at an increasing rate throughout the country. From large cities to small towns, and from Florida to California, programs designed to promote the benefits of supporting local businesses and neighborhoods are on the rise.

A number of the new programs are underway around here as well, including several that focus specifically on Princeton.

More than merchants’ associations, which have been around for decades, many of these programs have a more grassroots structure and often a broader mission. Some see themselves in a fight against the “big box store” mentality or Internet shopping. Others see supporting neighborhood businesses as part of the bigger picture of “living green.” For still others, banding together with other local business owners looks like the best way to survive the recession; and while most are structured as not-for-profit organizations, others are for-profit businesses.

“These programs are a great asset to any business district; they add vibrancy and value,” says Peter Crowley, president of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce. Currently there are three separate “shop your neighborhood” programs in various stages of development in Princeton, along with more traditional organizations such as the chamber and the Borough Merchants for Princeton. A similar program in Lawrence focuses on shopping locally as part of its overall mission of living green. For 10 years U.S. 1’s website has given the community a list of arts, business, and cultural events alongside its comprehensive online directory of businesses and healthcare providers. Broken into approximately 200 categories, the business listings connect the community to professional services ranging from adult school to waste disposal within the 8-mile radius around Route 1 and Alexander Road.

PrincetonInfo’s 50 healthcare categories highlight everything from surgeons to massage therapists. U.S. 1 also plans to include retail and restaurant listings in the near future. This is one of the oldest of the “shop your neighborhood” programs and functions a little differently from many of the newer organizations. Founded by Ken Greenberg, of WHMedia at 31 Airpark Road, exists solely as a website and is a combination yellow pages, event directory, restaurant guide, municipal directory and newspaper.

Greenberg started the website in 2003 after realizing that as more people began using Internet search engines to locate stores rather than the old fashioned yellow pages, local businesses started losing out. This was mostly because residents just didn’t know where to find the products and services they were looking for, he says.

There is a fee for the commercial ads on the site, but other information, such as phone numbers and addresses for municipal offices and public libraries, is listed without charge.

While some larger chain stores are listed on the directory, Greenberg says the site “favors locally owned and operated stores. We are the champions of the independent businesses that help maintain the unique character and commercial balance of our community.”

Hometown Princeton Inc. One of the newest programs in the area, there is still time to become a charter member of Hometown Princeton, says its founder, Nick Hilton, owner of a pseudonymous men’s and women’s clothing store at 221 Witherspoon Street.

“This is an idea I’ve had for a long time,” says Hilton, who opened his store in 2001. “I began to notice the tendency for many people who live in Princeton to hop in their cars and head to the malls on Route 1, or even to Philadelphia or New York when they want to shop. But we have excellent stores right here.”

Hilton put his ideas into action after the 2008 recession. “My website developer, who works with small businesses all over the United States, mentioned that he was seeing that businesses that had the support of a strong shop local program were struggling less than businesses that didn’t,” he says. “I took that to heart.”

Describing himself as “an obsessive type, Hilton says, “Working with independent business owners is a little like herding cats. They are independent business owners because they are independent.” But since January he has signed up 15 businesses to work with the program and expects to sign at least 15 more in the near future. That will give the fledgling organization the capital to start a website and marketing campaign.

Shop Your Neighborhood. This program has a statewide focus and its founders hope to be the catalyst that will help to spark programs in towns and cities throughout the state. The program is a part of Biz4NJ, an Internet-based business whose “mission is to help Garden State business grow in a way that is respectful of people and mindful of the environment,” says one its founders and owners, Pravin Philip.

“Our goal is not to create a cacophony of competing voices, each shouting ‘Shop in Princeton!’ ‘Shop in Hightstown!’ ‘Shop in Plainsboro!’ Philip says. “We want each neighborhood to become a vibrant place in its own right.”

Philip has “guides” for two programs in Wakefield and Princeton. Lorette Pruden is shepherding the program in Princeton. “She is rooted in the community, she received her doctorate from Princeton University and she sees the big picture,” Philip says.

He explains his view of that picture: “If you bypass the local stores to shop on the Internet you are bypassing members of your community who are helping you and your family every day. Local businesses pay local taxes, which go to support the schools, roads, and municipal services.”

Sustainable Lawrence. Promoting local business is just one of many causes supported by Sustainable Lawrence, a “grassroots non-profit that is working for ecological sanity,” says its executive director, Ralph Copleman. It was organized about two years ago as a comprehensive program that focuses on issues like recycling, land use, and green building.

“Our view is that everything is interconnected,” Copleman says. “You can’t just look at one issue, such as creating bike paths, or recycling, without looking at the big picture. We see shopping locally as one part of the big picture of sustainable living. If you shop locally not only are you traveling less and using less fuel, you are also improving your quality of life in many other ways.”

Copleman’s wife, Joyce, helped him to understand how creating a vibrant shopping area in Lawrence could improve quality of life about a decade ago when she began to work with a committee to revitalize Lawrence’s Main Street.

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