A Saturday-morning pilgrimage to the Little Italy Mercato is a weekly ritual for some 3,500 gastronomes, who navigate four blocks of booths filled with more than 100 vendors selling fresh produce — most grown locally — artisan food and specialty foods. This neighborhood farmers’ market, launched just two and a half years ago by Catt Fields-White, not only has proven profitable to its growing roster of vendors. It also has been an economic boon to the Little Italy Business Improvement District.

Little Italy’s BID is one of 18 such districts in San Diego in which small, homegrown businesses are assessed a yearly fee, from $40 to $500, to help promote and improve their area. More than 11,000 local businesses are members of their neighborhood BIDs, according to the city of San Di­ego, which collects fees on behalf of the districts while leaving their governance to independent neighborhood business associations.

Most San Diegans know little about the work the BIDs do to promote neighborhood commerce. But they are aware of the large-scale outdoor events the various BIDs put on each year that altogether attract hundreds of thousands of attendees. Those include the Gaslamp Quarter’s Mardi Gras and ShamROCK (which take place this month) celebrations, the Adams Avenue Street Fair, North Park’s Festival of Arts, Ocean Beach’s 32nd annual Street Fair & Chili Cook-off Festival, Little Italy’s 17th annual Festa and the College Area Boo! Parade & Carnival.

Special events provide a one-time — or couple of times — revenue boost for local merchants, but what really determines their success

or failure is day-to-day, week-to-week neighborhood commerce. The small busi­nesses represented by BIDs are competing with the national chains, the superstores, the big-box retailers — the "category killers," so called because often they do not peacefully coexist with the neighborhood bookstore, coffeehouse or farmers’ market. They tend to drive small, homegrown businesses into extinction.

That’s why Fields-White not only manages Little Italy’s farmers’ market but also has helped the Adams Avenue BID start up its own market and the North Park BID revitalize its already-existing market. She sees the out-of-town barbarians at the gate and wants to do all she can to ensure the survival of San Diego’s local businesses.

Taking Care of BID-ness

"Shopping at any neighborhood business is keeping the money here," Fields-White says. When local residents shop at the warehouse club, the discount department store or the value retailer, she says, the money ends up at "corporate headquarters in Illinois" or some other such place.

Fields-White might sound parochial, but her assertion is corroborated by a number of economic studies. One from 2009, "Thinking Outside the Big Box," by the nonprofit research organization Urban Conservancy and retail-industry tracking firm Civic Economics, found that only 16 percent of money spent at superstores stays in the local economy, compared to 32 percent for local retailers. That’s because local retailers purchase more of their goods and serv­ices from area businesses than do national chains.

Most consumers don’t give very much thought to whether the store at which they buy their groceries or books or hardware turns the dollars over in the local economy or sends them on to Austin, Texas (Whole Foods), Ann Arbor, Michigan (Borders Books), or Atlanta (Home Depot). But that’s starting to change, says W. Patrick Edwards, president of San Diego’s BID Council, which is made up of representatives of each of the city’s 18 districts. There are ebbs and flows to the business cycle, he says. For a time, shopping complexes were on the ascent with their national chain stores. The culmination was the emergence of the so-called "power centers," the conglomeration of superstores into gargantuan shopping centers of up to 750,000 square feet.

"We are at or near the end of that cycle," says Edwards, owner of Antique Refinishing in North Park. "People are choosing to go to their local shopping centers" that are much smaller in scale and that are populated exclusively by neighborhood merchants.

Meanwhile, the BID Council is promoting a "Shop Small" campaign for this year, which urges residents to stop by their favorite locally owned shops more often in 2011. "It’s good for you. It’s good for your neighborhood," the campaign encourages.

The 11,000 local businesses that are members of their neighborhood BID could not agree more.    

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