When Transition Sarasota Executive Director Don Hall first heard the theme of Sarasota County's 2013 Sustainable Communities Workshop - "Investing in Our Future" - he thought, "Bingo."
In March, Hall and Transition hosted a talk by Woody Tasch, the founder of a network known as Slow Money, which seeks to connect investors with local food growers and producers and restaurants that pledge to buy local ingredients. The idea being: You can shop at farmers' markets all you want, but why not take your commitment to local food to the next level and actually help an aspiring business succeed?
So when Hall heard about the county's workshop, he knew exactly who to call to make a dynamite keynote speech: Carol Peppe Hewitt, the cofounder of Slow Money NC and the author of "Financing Our Foodshed: Growing Local Food with Slow Money."
Hewitt grew up in northwestern Connecticut, where her passion for local food grew out of visits her father, a veterinarian, would make to nearby farms. "In my lifetime, I watched all those small farms disappear," she says. While Hewitt never became a farmer herself, she stayed passionate about increasing access to locally grown food.
In 2010, Tasch visited Hewitt's town: Pittsboro, N.C. His idea, of communities forming organizations to help local food producers find investment capital, made perfect sense. "A few of us met out in the hall after Woody's talk and said, 'Let's do this,'" Hewitt remembers.
Their first deal involved Hewitt and another investor making a loan to the owner of a nearby Greek restaurant, Angelina's Kitchen. The owner had financed an expansion using credit cards. Her Slow Money deal allowed her to refinance that debt at a much lower interest rate. "Within two years, she paid us off completely," Hewitt says.
Slow Money itself doesn't make any loans, Hewitt emphasizes. "We're simply creating the mechanism, the space, where lenders and borrowers can meet." Hewitt screens potential borrowers to make sure their goals align with Slow Money's mission, but the ultimate decision to invest or not rests solely with the investor. To date, Slow Money NC has helped facilitate more than 100 loans throughout North Carolina.
Could something like Slow Money succeed in Southwest Florida? Hewitt says Sarasota already has one advantage. "You have in Sarasota, which only exists in a few places around the country, an intelligent, skilled individual" - Don Hall. "You have someone who's interested in doing this and facilitating these loans and in leading a local network."
Hall had originally hoped to spark the idea for a Slow Money network here, not to lead it himself, but the idea fizzled. Now he's crafted a more aggressive plan, and has already scheduled three meetings to introduce the idea. The first gathering takes place Wed., Jan. 29. He says right now interest is higher on the lender side than the borrower side. "I think that most of the farmers and restaurants, they're not aware that this is available for them yet," Hall says. "So we're trying to get the word out in whatever way we can."
It won't be simple to build an investment network from the ground up, but as Hewitt's example makes clear, it can be done.