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Hamilton downtown

The Ravalli County Commission is planning on developing a policy of buying local after hearing from some Hamilton business people Tuesday.

Local business owners want Ravalli County government to put away their computers and pick up their telephones when it comes time to order supplies.

On Tuesday, county commissioners appeared to agree that there needs to be a buy-local policy in place for county government.

That decision followed a short meeting where local businessmen questioned the $15,485 the county spent last year with the internet-sales company Amazon.

Shawn Wathen of Hamilton’s Chapter One bookstore told the commission he made the decision to see just how much money was leaving the state from county coffers to buy products online.

That decision followed a seminar he attended where he learned that Montanans spent $155.6 million with Amazon in 2015. The money that leaves the state translates into enough revenue to operate 108 retail outlets, a loss of at least $2 million in local and state tax revenues and a net loss of 1,000 jobs.

It took some doing and $120 to pay for the search of county records for Wathen to come up with the dollar amount.

“That money spent with Amazon goes right out of the county,” Wathen said. “It doesn’t re-circulate. It doesn’t help pay for schools, roads or find its way back into the county coffers.”

The county only purchased three books from Amazon last year.

“Three books are not going to keep my doors open,” he said. “It’s not going to support my business. Most of it was spend on office supplies, fax machines…Most of it could have been purchased locally. In turn, that money could have contributed to the economic viability of the community.”

Dan Mitchell of the Paper Clip in Hamilton told the commission that he had compared prices the county paid for supplies. In many cases, he said the local business could have beat the price and hand-delivered the supplies on the same day.

Dan’s father, Al Mitchell, said his business has struggled before with the county government doing business outside of the Bitterroot Valley.

Without local support, Mitchell said businesses in small towns like Hamilton struggle.

“The breaking point is fast approaching,” Mitchell said. “Take a walk down Main Street. Look at the lack of retail choices, shuttered businesses and underutilized buildings.”

While the slogan of buying local is “just white noise to many folks,” Mitchell said that local businesses are not looking for a handout or a donation.

“We are simply asking that you do business with us as tax-paying, invested, caring neighbors,” Mitchell said. “We love living here and love to contribute back to our communities with our time and what we can afford.

“Missoula, the big boxes and Amazon do not need you,” he said. “The main streets up and down the valley and the small business owners need and depend on you for their existence. Don’t let us fade away.”

Commissioners agreed with the business owners that the county needs to have a policy in place to encourage buying local.

Commissioner Jeff Burrows said there hadn’t been an actual policy shift that encouraged county offices to buy online.

“To me, if it’s the same price or even close, it’s a no-brainer,” Burrows said. “We all understand the benefits of spending the county’s money locally.”

Commissioner Chris Hoffman encouraged the business owners to touch base with other elected officials. The former sheriff said he would have appreciated that conversation when he was serving in that earlier capacity.

Commissioners Ray Hawk and Burrows were assigned to develop a new policy that would encourage buying local. When that’s completed, the plan called for bringing all the local elected officials together to further discuss the issue.

At the end of the meeting, Dan Mitchell reminded the commission that he’s always happy to deliver supplies whenever they’re needed.

“I’ll walk the three blocks to bring it here,” he said. “It will be great for my Fitbit.”

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Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.