The Alternative OBJ Article

I am spending this summer as an intern at the Orlando Business Journal, a weekly publication focusing on small-business interests in Central Florida. Although I am plodding along, picking up as much as I can about researching and reporting, I was stalled a bit when my editor threw me an assignment about what he called “the hippie commune” in Downtown Orlando, on the corner of Colonial and North Thornton ave (right by Colonial and Mills). My editor and I had clearly different views on what the viewpoint of the story should be, and of course he won out. But here is what should have been published. 

The co-founder of Dandelion Communitea, Julie Norris, is a woman on a mission. Inspired by her community and the idea of sustainability, she is instrumental in helping organize the local grassroots movement called Ourlando. Norris calls it “a movement to take pride and embrace Orlando as our own,” and aims to create an alliance amongst the independent storeowners, musicians, and artists in Orlando.
Does this sound to idealistic to be functional? Small business owners involved in the movement think that with the price of oil rising and the slump in the economy, sustainability has ironically become the new frontier.
“People are feeling a need financially and spiritually to become more independent and personally sustainable,” said Emily Ruff, director of the Florida School of Holistic Living. “The pressure is on, now.”
FSHL opened in 1999 as the Florida School of Herbal Studies, and taught students the science of using herbs and holistic living. The school changed its name to reflect the emphasis in sustainability the program advocates. In addition to general courses and the herbal certification program, FSHL offers workshops on topics such as Introduction to Worm Composting, Organic Pest Control, and a course called, “It’s Easy Being Green.”
“People in the community seem hungry for knowledge on how to put green programs to use in an urban setting,” said Ruff.
Ruff, Norris, and a number of other small business owners have set up shop on the corner of Colonial Highway 50 and North Thornton Avenue, and are a leading example of how the revitalization of Downtown Orlando is taking place through community initiatives to strengthen the local economy.
For example take Dandelion’s monthly Green Drinks event, which according to the website mixes “eco-minded folks+local organic beer” to equal “green synergy.” The event brings together local business owners and community leaders to discuss how to make Orlando a more sustainable community.
Emily Rankin, founder of the Audubon Park Community Market and a featured speaker at Green Drinks, sat with me recently to explain why small businesses are clear and more environment friendly. Reduced shipping costs and reduced waste are two major factors that not only help a company be green, but also reduce the cost of running a business. Rankin explains that “It’s all about the bottom line–for a business to be successful, it must be sustainable.”
To get an idea of the kind of sustainability Norris and Ruff are promoting in their community, you can walk out behind Dandelion and take a look at the “Vermi-caster,” a commercial worm compost made by the Apopka-based company Our Vital Earth. The Vermi-caster takes organic waste and turns it into worm castings, which can then be used as organic fertilizer. At Dandelion, this fertilizer is then used in the community garden run by FSHL. The school uses the garden to teach instructional classes on gardening and herbs, opens it to schools for fieldtrips, and for other community events. The garden could grow herbs to be sold at FSHL’s co-op, Homegrown, or could be used to grow vegetables to help supplement Dandelion’s vast vegan menu. 
Although some of the businesses did not set out to become part of the Thornton community, they have had success in the area largely because of the open atmosphere and attitudes of nearby storeowners. The cluster resembles the circle of life more so than a typical competitive business model–but the owners prefer it this way.
“This is not about competition, but working together,” said Norris. “When one of us succeeds, it helps raise the community as a whole.”
Many of the managers have seen a boost to their business simply by being associated with other businesses in the area, especially Dandelion. The director of the Misty Forest Enrichment Center, Leah Fairchild, says that despite not doing any advertising, their day camp is at full capacity. Little Green Spa owner Lisa Behrens agrees that most of her customers hear about the spa through word-of-mouth, or by coming to events at Dandelion.
Julie Norris and co-founder Chris Blanc opened Dandelion in 2006 with the intention to be as “green” as possible. This meant using an existing building as their storefront and carefully choosing materials when working on renovations. All of the furniture in the teahouse is secondhand or built from secondhand materials, and the kitchen saves energy by only using small household appliances.
Owners of the businesses surrounding Dandelion are also careful to be eco-friendly. Little Green Spa uses completely organic skin care products and the Florida School of Holistic Living runs a co-op for members to purchase local produce. Ninety-five percent of their organic products in the store come from Florida, cutting down on energy during the shipping process.
Norris understands the business of agriculture, and hopes to bring small farms back to life. By keeping track of the produce she uses on a daily basis at Dandelion, she can lay a basis of demand for local farmers.
“I can start talking about building,” said Norris. “I can say; I have a need for 100 pounds of spring lettuce a year, and farmers can work to fill that demand.”
Norris notes that the spread of salmonella and the flooding in the mid-west that occurred in June 2008 are perfect examples of why local growth is more important than ever. Norris says that these events skyrocketed food prices and created a widespread effect that could be minimized if markets were not completely depended on one geographic location.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s