An Un-Embarrassment of Un-Riches

The Willamette Valley’s history of agricultural exports breaks down into two categories: lumber and grass seed. When you have the opportunity to fly over the area, it’s plain to see that it’s really a distinction without a difference. For Christmas trees and golf courses, America greens itself from here.

On the ground, the products complement each other. A timber baron and a dirt farmer both are working the land. Grass can be mowed twice a week. Trees are harvested twice a century. One line of work requires a lot more patience.

Economic development follows a similar strategy. The front page of the newspaper is reserved for the big developments and the major employers. But they don’t represent the whole picture of our economic fortunes. It’s not that we can’t see the forest from the trees; it’s that we forget the grass between our toes.

Even before the grassroots begin to grow, there’s a seed. I’m pleased to report that economic seeds are being planted and nurtured, easily overlooked but mightily important. Here’s just one example.

Last Saturday, three organizations (Helios Resource Network, Eugene City of Peace, and eDev, a.k.a. Entrepreneurial Development Services) invited their members and friends to an Indian dinner at Unity of the Valley Church in south Eugene. Almost 70 people showed up.

Modeled after Boston’s Sunday Soup, the two-hour event started with dinner and conversation around church hall tables. Then came the “entertainment” for the evening. Four entrepreneurs gave short pitches for a business concept they were pursuing and then took questions from the audience. After dinner, each of us voted for the concept we found most promising.

We heard from an activist who wanted funding to keep the phones and post office box open as she seeks to be an ongoing support for the Occupy Eugene movement. Two young retailers asked for money to build a website that will promote their bi-monthly fashion shows, as well as the talent and enthusiasm that those shows display. A third entrepreneur wanted to start a consultancy to help restaurants transition to more sustainable practices. The last presenter was hoping to buy a projector to be used at free seminars for geeks learning new computer coding tricks.

Before anyone had left the hall, the votes were tallied and Leda Hermecz was handed a check for $531.42 to help launch her sustainable food service consultancy. It wasn’t exactly “American Idol.” If anything, our goal was to make one Oregonian less idle.

Emerald F.E.A.S.T. (Financing of Eugene Area Sustainable Talent) brings crowd-sourcing to Eugene’s micro-finance landscape. Planning has already begun for another session on April 28, in a larger venue.

Where did the $531.42 come from? Here’s the genius of this shoestring celebration. Three area grocers donated food. A couple of volunteers learned how to cook for six dozen. For the food and entertainment, each of us paid about $20 — what we might have paid for a restaurant meal and a movie. After paying for the church hall and extra groceries, everything else was given to the winning entrepreneur. Nobody was paid for their efforts, except the winner. But everybody left satisfied.

Bullies beat up the defenseless and take their lunch money. This was the opposite of that. Seventy Eugeneans pooled their dinner money and gave it away.

Hermecz told me that winning the money wasn’t the best gift. “The feedback I got afterwards was what I appreciated the most,” she said. “Everybody was so helpful. Their suggestions were really great.”

I think of it as gateway philanthropy. People left the evening pleased to have done a little good. If they get hooked on that feeling, they might go on to commit larger acts of benevolence. Every grassroots movement begins with seeds quietly being planted.

On Monday, Hermecz will attend Lane Community College’s Local Food Connection, funded by F.E.A.S.T. That event partners local food suppliers with food service businesses. Hermecz can call herself “an award-winning entrepreneur.” She knows there are 70 strangers rooting for her, because she’s walking around with their meal money.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.