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St. Pete City Council backs ‘Million-Dollar Mission’ to buy local

Margie Manning

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Ester Venouziou with St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman at Localshops1's inaugural Tiny Home Festival, April 2018.

Ester Venouziou, founder and president of LocalShops1, wants to be sure the Tampa-St. Petersburg area’s smallest merchants aren’t forgotten amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Venouziou started an online marketplace, buylocaltampabay.com, to help make it easier for consumers to connect with and ship directly from local makers and small businesses.

Many of those businesses typically rely on markets and festivals, which have been on pause. And many of them don’t qualify for SBA loans or county grants because they don’t have a brick-and-mortar location, or if they do, they don’t have enough employees, Venouziou said.

She’s dubbed her initiative the “Million-Dollar Mission,” because if 50,000 buyers spent $20 each to purchase an item from a local business, those businesses would generate a combined $1 million in sales.

The St. Petersburg City Council endorsed the idea, unanimously approving a resolution offered by Council member Brandi Gabbard Thursday.

“This resolution would lend full Council support to this effort and would build further awareness of the plight of the small business community, especially the at-home businesses that have been left out of most funding resources and that we all continue to advocate for,” Gabbard said. “It’s a community effort that I believe falls in line with the St. Pete Way initiative we heard about earlier, but it’s going to take a lot of hands to get the word out to complete this goal.”

Venouziou said she had been thinking about creating an online marketplace for several years.

“But there was always an excuse: too much money, too much time, and so on. Prompted by several LocalShops1 members, I decided it was time to eliminate the excuses and just go for it,” she said. “The Million Dollar Mission came to me when I saw a post on Facebook, someone  all excited about TJ Maxx opening again. That post got like 200 responses in a few minutes, all people eager to shop. So that got me thinking, what if these people shifted some of their budget to local businesses.”

All locally-owned businesses can list and sell on the marketplace for free. LocalShops1, a small business networking group, does not charge listing fees and does not take cuts from sales. Payment goes directly to the sellers, so credit card transaction fees apply.

“LocalShops1 membership is of course appreciated, but it’s not a requirement to participate in the marketplace,” Venouziou said.

In the first six weeks it was operating, the online marketplace generated close to $7,000 in sales in 295 transactions, Gabbard said.

Gabbard said she expects sales to grow quickly with the backing of other organizations that have partnered on the effort, including I Love the Burg + That’s So Tampa, the City of St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, St. Petersburg Greenhouse, St. Pete Store and Visitor Center, Grow Smarter St. Petersburg, Deuces Live, EDGE District, Grand Central District, St. Pete Downtown Neighborhood Association, Lakewood Estates Civic Association, St. Pete Innovation District and Wanna Go St. Pete.

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