The main page for Emergence Baltimore’s Buy Local Baltimore navigator, which allows people to search more than 500 Baltimore businesses. Image courtesy of Emergence Baltimore.
The main page for Emergence Baltimore’s Buy Local Baltimore navigator, which allows people to search more than 500 Baltimore businesses. Image courtesy of Emergence Baltimore.

With Baltimore City’s recent restrictions on restaurants and other businesses aimed at reducing the spread of coronavirus, it is up to community members to help local businesses weather the pandemic, said Kevin Carter, co-founder and president of the nonprofit Emergence Baltimore.

“We’ve already seen so many [small businesses] that have had to either temporarily or permanently shut down,” Carter said. “We can’t just wait for the pandemic to be over and then assume that all of our favorite restaurants and businesses are going to be there.”

Even before Mayor Brandon Scott announced the city’s new coronavirus restrictions last Wednesday, Emergence Baltimore had already been working on a new tool to help people more easily find local businesses where they could buy holiday gifts or meet their other needs.

The nonprofit recently launched the Buy Local Baltimore navigator, an online directory of Baltimore businesses that users can search based on the business type, neighborhood location, products, and ownership characteristics, such as Black- or women-owned businesses.

“We wanted to try to make it just a little bit easier, a little bit more efficient, provide a little bit more knowledge in the consumers hands so they can they can make that they can make that choice,” Carter said.

Pava LaPere, founder and CEO of EcoMap Technologies and the lead partner on Buy Local Baltimore, had created an archival database of more than 300 restaurants in Baltimore, organized by cuisine, neighborhood and ways to support them. Emergence Baltimore was able to use that data, combined with information from more than 200 other small businesses, to create the Buy Local Baltimore navigator, Carter said.

Businesses that are not already on the list can add themselves by filling out a submission form.

Carter said he has noticed a growing desire among consumers to buy products from local businesses instead of purchasing from large national companies.

“The competition is Amazon or any kind of e-commerce behemoth, where you can just make a few clicks and then you get a candle that shows up to your door in two days or less. But we wanted to show that you can get these products — and even higher quality products — in your own backyard,” he said.

Businesses have also been thankful for the attention they have received so far through Buy Local Baltimore after nine months of economic challenges spurred by the pandemic, Carter said.

“They’ve been dealing with these restrictions. They’ve been dealing with less consumer spending. They’ve been dealing with higher running costs,” he said. “So any bit of support that they’ve received, they’ve been grateful for it.”

Emergence Baltimore launched earlier this year as a live-in accelerator program, where entrepreneurs could be part of a co-living community and work on their ventures.

The live-in portion disbanded in November as the number of COVID-19 cases rose and cohort priorities changed, Carter said, but the pandemic’s ongoing impact on Baltimore small businesses presented new ways for Emergence Baltimore to offer its support.

“Instead of trying to sprout new businesses, we could coalesce a lot of resources to help the existing ones that are going through the most challenging time of their lives,” he said.

In addition to Buy Local Baltimore, the nonprofit has launched two other initiatives since November: BMore Baskets, which creates gift baskets with products from Baltimore small businesses; and A Force for Local, a program that matches small businesses with volunteers who can help with marketing, website development and other tasks.

Emergence Baltimore runs A Force for Local in partnership with the Loyola University student startup Equalyze. Through the program, volunteers can donate any number of hours per week to assist small businesses free of charge.

With the pandemic forcing people to make even more of their purchases online, Carter said it is particularly important for businesses to update their online presence.

“Some of them, they have fantastic products, they have a fantastic storefront, they have a really well-versed ownership and employees, but they are not equipped for the digital age as much as they could be or should be, especially in light of 2020,” he said.

A Force for Local allows volunteers, who are mostly students, to make a “tangible difference” by offering their services for even a few hours per week, Carter said.

“The difference between getting a functioning e-commerce site or an optimized e-commerce site up and running for the holidays and not could be thousands of dollars,” he said. “It can make the difference between making it to 2021 and not.”

Emergence Baltimore started A Force for Local to help businesses during the holiday season, but Carter said his nonprofit is still determining whether to continue the program into 2021.

“As long as it’s necessary and something that we see as providing great value to the Baltimore local business community, we want to do what we can to keep them up and running,” he said.

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Marcus Dieterle

Marcus Dieterle is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. He returned to Baltimore in 2020 after working as the deputy editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper in Elkton, Md. He can be reached at marcus@baltimorefishbowl.com...