In Focus: Kimber Lanning, founder of organization that fosters local business

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This is a rerun from 12/01/17

Kimber Lanning is Founder and Executive Director of Local First Arizona, a statewide organization that promotes vibrant local economies.

Local First Arizona works with approximately 3,000 businesses throughout Arizona, with a special focus on providing access to healthy food for communities, entrepreneurial development and assisting in developing rural areas.



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KIMBER LANNING: It's been a wild ride is the first thing that comes to my mind. What used to be a rough, dirt lot, now we are looking at apartments that are really not unique to this region. There are many apartments just like these popping everywhere.

KIMBER LANNING: Thanks for having me.

TED SIMONS: Thanks for joining us. We are here in Modified Arts. This feels like home to you?

KIMBER LANNING: Absolutely. We have been here since '99. We have seen a lot of transformation in the arts district downtown. This place, we have remodeled it several times. It's now home to local first Arizona offices as well.

TED SIMONS: We are on Roosevelt Row now. When you first moved to this area, Roosevelt street back in the day, what was it like?

KIMBER LANNING: That lot across the street was a big, huge, blighted lot. There was a liquor store and hub cap shop. In this particular building, there was a specialty bookstore and a small performance space. It was very rundown. There were a lot of boarded up buildings. We used to have homeless that would drag large pieces of furniture and light them on fire in the dirt lot across the street and they would have a bonfire. Truly, the police would never come down here. It was the wild west.

TED SIMONS: Why did you decide to come down here? Why this area?

KIMBER LANNING: I was in a band at the time. I remember what it felt like outside and seeing the large skyscrapers downtown. I thought what an interesting change from the east valley. I had my record store in Tempe at the time. I thought it would be fantastic. I started putting a plan in place. I called together a group of dancers and painters and theater students, certainly a ton of musicians and said, hey, what do you think if we turned this over into a shared collective art space? That's how the idea for modified was born.

TED SIMONS: When you got into the business side, came down here and had a stake in everything, did it feel right? Did it feel like this is what you were meant to do as opposed to being in a band or angling toward the performing arts and those things.
KIMBER LANNING: Absolutely. What was interesting moving into the space on Roosevelt was the first day of my foray into being politically engaged as well because we were always having to fight for our lives. The city originally planned to bulldoze the area and redevelop it. Obviously not knowing that when I bought this one little building, it thrust me into a lot of conversations about how downtown would grow. That was one of the unintended consequences of trying to open up an art space down here. It really was the first opportunity for me to engage with mayor and council and have this conversation about what smart growth look like. Creating quality space, what does culture look like in Phoenix? Why would we want to preserve these funky old buildings and usher in entrepreneurship as a strategy for economic development as opposed simply of going out and getting large companies to move in here, bulldozing all of our history and putting new developments with people that don't live in this area? It's been a critical shift in my entire focus in life.

TED SIMONS: When you first came down here, you bought the gallery, a lot of shows down here. Sometimes you were the only show and only action on the street. Did you see anything remotely like what we see now?
KIMBER LANNING: No. Not at all. The only things, really, are a handful of bungalows here and behind. You may remember the bungalows south of Garfield street that were all removed rapidly those disappeared over ten years ago. Now even the commercial buildings on all other corners are demolished or are located to make way for the apartments here. There are few things that harken back to the days in the late '90s.
TED SIMONS: Judging from how it looks now to where it was during its Roosevelt Row heyday to the beginning, it's quite a journey, isn't it?

KIMBER LANNING: It is quite a journey. I feel very fortunate to feel a part of it. There are a lot of people that make the arts district what it was. In its heyday, one of the top ten in the country. There are a lot of people that put sweat equity in. The building stock was here. It's a perfect storm. The building stock, energy around the arts community. The buyers. We sold a lot of art. We took a lot of early start up artists and turned them into mid-career artists into the space. We spring boarded a great number of careers here. When you look at the life and death of cities, it's about timing. We were here at just the right time.

TED SIMONS: You mentioned when you got down here, all of the sudden, you realized you got activated. You became an activist, someone who activated for downtown development on Roosevelt row. When you went to city council. When you started dealing with city leaders, what was that like?

KIMBER LANNING: It was fascinating. My calling came out as an interpreter, meaning a lot of times, the artists themselves had a hard time communicating to city council, because I was a business owner, I was able to step in and build a bridge between the two so we can have more ongoing communication. There were big challenges for many years. We’ve been cracked down on by police officers. We have been in turn supported by police officers. There was a time in which it was frustrating to the city to have us here. As you remember, The Cardinal stadium was going to be in the neighborhood. We went through times, politically, when we were the champions. People thought, wow, this is really important. We now see it's not just about bigger, bigger, bigger. The small fine grained stuff plays an important role in creating a culture and a place people would want to live here.

TED SIMONS: Was there an evolution in the thinking of city hall on those terms?

KIMBER LANNING: Oh, absolutely. And that goes both ways, by the way. It’s not always an evolution in one direction. It Ebbs and flows with leadership. I think we have been on a general positive trend, but I think that we just really haven't figured out how to encourage good design with the new development. We are ending up with a lot of apartments that aren't encouraging walk ability. They are not interfacing with the street well. They are not respecting human scale development. That's unfortunate. When you allow those kinds of development to move into an area that was formerly walkable, you end up with a street full -- have a whole lot of empty gyms with ellipticals shining throughout the day and night.

TED SIMONS: How do you balance business growth with the community's best interest because you need the business. You need the growth. You should have the community as well. How do you do that?

KIMBER LANNING: I think the simple solution is good design. I'm all for density. Height is a good thing, however, when it’s poorly designed, for example when you can't leave your apartment and exit on to the street, you know what it’s like in a big city, and instead you have to exit a parking garage, you have a massive problem. I like to say density minus good design is really just an out growth of suburban living. Active boomers and millennials are voting that suburban living is not what the next generation wants.

TED SIMONS: Do other business owners see it the same way you do?

KIMBER LANNING: I don't think there is a unified voice. There are a number of people down here that think all growth is bad. I don’t think that. I think growth can be good as long as it's designed well. There is no reason you can't have an expertly-designed sky rise that interacts thoughtfully with the street that still feels from the pedestrian's perspective to activate. It's a great opportunity to activate and interface with the street. You can also have a sky rise dropped in here like it's from another planet. It's a huge block now that you have to simply walk quickly to get by. There is no shade. It doesn't create to the authentic flavor that was here.

TED SIMONS: I have to ask you. You sound like someone who was born and raised in a metropolitan area, understands urban density, understands city living. Where were you raised?

KIMBER LANNING: I was raised in Glendale, Arizona. I have just traveled a lot. Keep in mind that I did study architecture. I have a brother that's an architect as well. Very engaged with thoughtful design. We have a program now at Local First Arizona called "forum." that brings together the development community to have a conversation about how we can encourage new development while encouraging local independent businesses and human scale ability and walk ability and all those things that make great cities.

TED SIMONS: Was Glendale, the west valley, in any way like this when you were growing up?

KIMBER LANNING: No. Not at all. It was very agricultural back then. My father was stationed at Luke air force base and Northern was one lane in each direction between 59th avenue and on to Luke air force base. Not at all.

TED SIMONS: What are your memories of the old days of the valley, of Glendale, of Phoenix back when it was kind of a small town, and everyone knew each other and all of these massive developments were few and far between?

KIMBER LANNING: So I have a number of great memories. One of my favorite memories -- My job, when I was five years old, we go out to the commissary at Luke air force base. My mom would pull over and one of the old dairy farmers had pulled an old refrigerator on the side of the road and you could see an extension disappearing on to the property. There was milk by the gallon in glass jars and you would just leave your money on your word. So it was my job to buy us two gallons of milk. We were doing a dinner recently with a bunch of dairy farmers and food producers throughout the valley. I said to Clint Hickman, remember that old forge on the side of road? He leans over and said, Billy, that was your grandad, right? They are a dairy family but they have moved to Tolleson. Nonetheless, the family is still here creating dairy products for all of us.

TED SIMONS: Some people look at old Phoenix and they want to go back -- everything to look like the willow district. They want everything to feel like palm trees and straight roads and those sort of things. How do you feel about saving old buildings and a lifestyle with the movement forward with progress and development?
KIMBER LANNING: There is a great way to blend the old and new. It's critically important to figure this out. In fact, other cities are offering things like height variants if you preserve the older buildings. You are seeing in places like Detroit and Seattle of people building new on old. They are recognizing that the way the older structure interfaces with the street is critically important. It’s not the height that’s the enemy, it’s the poor design that can kill a city. It can kill the walkability. It can kill the authentic flavor. I think it’s a matter of balance. I don’t think we’re ever going to go back, but I do think it's critically important to preserve the older buildings when we can. I went to great lengths to move a 1910 bungalow across the street, right over here, the worth house. It’s going to be a welcome center for the area and it will be a beacon that shows you what the neighborhood used to look like.

TED SIMONS: Talk to us about the effort – talk to us about that house?

KIMBER LANNING: It's a beautiful old house. It was going to be demolished to make way for the apartments across the street. I called the owner of the building and said I'm really interested in preserving the old house. He said what do you want to do with it? I said I don't know, but I don't want it seen torn down. So we went out there with a tape measurer, and we decided, wow, it would fit on this lot here if we turned it and faced it west that we could put a wrap around porch on it. We are opening in a few weeks now, but it's been a two and a half year process. McCullough moved the home, lifting it up on a steel beams and moved it across the street and it was simply a wonderful process. I would do it all again in a heartbeat even though it was significantly harder than I imagined.

TED SIMONS: When you see a building like this, do you automatically say, I can save this, or was this a special project?

KIMBER LANNING: It was a special project. I hate to see a building of this caliber get torn down. When it was sitting over there, it was funny because it looks small. Now it looks very, very large on this side of the street. I thought, wow, I acquired this dirt lot just a short time before and wondered, what am I going to do here? I was thinking, “can I do a shipping container project?” What can we do here? You can see the beauty is really beginning to shine through. The home was built by Felix Worth, who was the first letter carrier in Phoenix. I love that kind of history.
TED SIMONS: No kidding. The family must be very happy to see.
KIMBER LANNING: They are thrilled. In fact, one of their granddaughters donated a planter. She and her husband have been involved. I got to go to the family reunion and meet the one remaining daughter. They raised six children in this home. The one remaining daughter just passed away recently, but she was thrilled to know that the house would live on.

TED SIMONS: Let’s get back to Local First Arizona for a minute. What is Local First Arizona?

KIMBER LANNING: It's a statewide nonprofit organization working to build a stronger and healthier Arizona economy.

TED SIMONS: And that's it?

KIMBER LANNING: That is it. That's our goal. We have a wonderful multipronged approach, a number of programs focused on diversifying and strengthening our economy that makes us more self-reliant, historically getting off of the boom and bust of real estate and thinking about what are out real, existing assets and how do we begin to celebrate them and champion them in order to build more opportunities for the next generation?

TED SIMONS: What got you to being such a champion for local business? People want to buy local and like to support ma and pa, but in general, although some people like the big boxes, they like the convenience, the pricing in general. You have become the leader of the parade for local businesses. When did that get started?

KIMBER LANNING: There were two things on my mind. The first is that local businesses plays an important role in connecting people to their place. 2/3 of us came from somewhere else. When those people move to Arizona, we need to make sure to show them the unique flavor and culture that is uniquely ours. The locally-owned restaurants, small boutiques shops, that's what people think of the city when they remember what they love the most. A lot of them think back to wherever they grew up and they knew all of the local businesses. But if we are not careful, they can move into our community, not interact with the local businesses, and say well it kind of has no culture here, no soul, and we can do that anywhere. It’s our job to make sure that we connect them with local businesses that actually create a sense of place and make people think fondly of their hometowns. The second thing on my mind was that I wanted to create a level playing field for the locally-owned businesses. Many people don't realize how much government dollars is given away in subsidies for big companies to move in. Certainly, there are base segment jobs. But then there is Cabela's out in Glendale who got a $68 million subsidy. Bass Pro out of Mesa got a $32 million subsidy. Wal-Marts are averaging $25 to $35 million per store for over 20 years. For every two jobs created in our community, three total jobs were actually lost. We can't pay for that, subsidize that using taxpayer dollars and call that economic development.

TED SIMONS: What do you say to city leader and consumers who say, I want Wal-Mart. I want Cabela's. I want these big stores. They are convenient. I can park. I can get in. I can get out. City leaders say there are lots of jobs out there. If they attract customers, all the better for everyone involved. How do you respond?

KIMBER LANNING: Those stores are not going away. I'm not suggesting they should go away. We shouldn’t be using tax-payer dollars to pay for them to come into our communities. So let's stop subsidizing them, level the playing field and let’s see how it all plays out. We are supposed to be in a free market society, but we ended up getting in the game of subsidizing certain businesses and therefore not measuring the true value. Like I said, we will hear time and time again that they are creating jobs, but they are also eliminating jobs at other local businesses. It's important to recognize that local businesses are going to be hiring local graphic designers, website developers, payroll providers, accountants, that creates more jobs locally whereas the big box stores create far fewer jobs but are not held accountable for that.

TED SIMONS: Talk to me about the fees, the regulations, that small businesses have to go to, especially in historic districts, downtown Phoenix and other areas around the city and state. I have heard from enough small business owners to know, especially rehabbing. Talk to us about that.

KIMBER LANNING: We worked really hard at Local First Arizona on the adaptive reuse of existing buildings, which is a process that a new business have to go through to get the doors open in the older building. We worked hard to reduce the regulatory burden, streamline the process so we can get the business owners open. Today, we have about the most progressive adaptive reuse program in the country, where we save the business significant money and time in the process to get the doors open.

TED SIMONS: You mentioned that there is not a unified voice on these kinds of things. What do you hear from either side of the argument?

KIMBER LANNING: On that particular issue, most people support a reduced regulatory environment. Certainly, we need to make it easier to occupy our older building stuff. Usually we don’t hear much push back on that. Usually Ted, when we hear push back, it's when people think they know what we are advocating for, but they are not clear. We are not anti-big box. We are about accountability and making sure that people are clear that their spending habits are impacting the number of job opportunities we have. They are directly impacting our economy. If we spend our money on companies that extract people that extract the wealth and don’t support any additional jobs here, there’s not a benefit for all of us. I can actually explain why cheap is not cheaper. It's costing us a fortune.

TED SIMONS: So we’ve got the history of Local First and your interest in local business. We also got a future ahead of us now. We saw what happened to Roosevelt street. It's certainly changed in so many ways. Ferris wheel type of thing. What is the perfect Kimber Lanning, organic, developed community that checks all of the boxes?

KIMBER LANNING: I think great communities are self reliant communities. That means everyone has the opportunity to build a good productive life for themselves and families. We are about diversifying Arizona's economy and creating as many opportunities as we can for businesses to thrive. Those locally-owned businesses, in turn, hire other young businesses. For me, we need to make sure we have the building stock, an educated populist, strong local businesses that can survive in a leveled playing field and a reduced regulatory environment.

TED SIMONS: Are we moving in those directions?

KIMBER LANNING: I believe we are. There are some significant challenges that we are facing as a community here, but also the nation. You mentioned earlier, that a lot of people like the big box stores. What’s interesting right now is that trends are showing that online retail is making the biggest leaps forward and local independent businesses are making larger leaps forward than anyone would have predicted. What’s happening is that we are seeing the nation dividing into two camps, those that are choosing convenience and those that are choosing relationships. What is falling down in the middle are big box stores that can neither offer convenience or relationships. What we’re seeing here is people who are shopping online and not realizing that the money they are spending – I don’t know If you saw Jeff Bezos just passed a $100 billion yesterday for his net worth. We are creating wealthy individuals contributing to the wealth disparity occurring in the nation, and we are eliminating jobs at a rapid pace. Those are big, big challenges we are facing to convince people that local businesses provide a unique experience that can be offered at a fair price.

TED SIMONS: The future of Phoenix, what do you see?

KIMBER LANNING: I see more and more people that have more and more hometown pride and that connection to place, where people feel accountable for this place, they are more likely to vote, they are going to be more likely to volunteer, to give charitably. They are going to go out and fix our education system. They'll put a flag in the ground and say this is my home. I want to stay here, and they’re going to build a better city. I feel strongly about that.

TED SIMONS: Is that changing?

KIMBER LANNING: Absolutely. I think a lot of people thought of us as a transient city. There are a lot of people standing around saying, what do you want me to do about it? I just got here 20 years ago. They lived here, enjoyed our great weather, but they are not truly committed. We are seeing more and more of a younger generation committed. They want to make sure they are advocating to build a better city.

TED SIMONS: That is the future of Phoenix. What is the future of Kimber Lanning?

KIMBER LANNING: I think this organization will continue to grow. Many people think Local First is just me, but there are 24 staff and six statewide offices. We continue to grow great programs that impact the economy here. I have been doing whole lot of public speaking so I think I’ve spoken in 12 states this year. I will continue to do that to go and education and inform other communities about how to build more self-reliance and more equitable local economies. Potentially, there is a book in there and a podcast that will begin to reframe these issues so folks can better understand how we can reclaim our economy.

TED SIMONS: Did the little girl in Glendale envision this kind of a future for herself?

KIMBER LANNING: I have been always been firey. I'll give my mother the credit. As a kindergartner going out the door my mother used to always yell after me, remember, nobody can make you do anything. You know when you start thinking about challenging systems, questioning authority from a very young age, the sky is the limit.

TED SIMONS: Well congratulations on a great career and for helping transform this particular area of Phoenix and others areas of the state. Continued success and thank you so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

KIMBER LANNING: Thank you so much.


STINGER/UNDERWRITER: If you have comments, use the address on the screen. Your comments may be used on a future episode of horizon. Thank you. "Arizona horizon" is made possible by the friends of eight, members of your Arizona station. Thank you.

Kimber Lanning: Founder, Local First Arizona

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