Local First was founded in 2003 as an informal group of seven business owners, led by Guy Bazzani, who were dedicated to promoting local businesses in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This group formed an early partnership with the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), naming itself BALLE West Michigan. Centered in Grand Rapids’ Uptown business district, the group was easily accessible to committed owners and loyal advocates of local business in the Grand Rapids community and the surrounding area. Today, the organization is known as Local First, a name that succinctly reflects the mission of the ever-growing advocacy organization.
In 2007, with 150 local businesses participating, Local First hired its first fulltime executive director, Elissa Hillary. With focused leadership, Local First began to grow exponentially, expanding beyond its traditional Uptown boundaries and throughout West Michigan. By the end of 2009, Local First’s membership exceeded 500 locally owned businesses, and Elissa was joined by a full-time membership coordinator and a part-time program coordinator.
In 2010, Local First was named the Midwest regional hub network for BALLE. As part of BALLE’s Community of Practice, Local First is responsible for advising “Buy Local” campaigns throughout the Midwest on organization and development issues. A recognized leader on local business issues and sustainability, Local First additionally participates in an advisory capacity on many of the City of Grand Rapids’ economic development initiatives.
Local First has become the largest organization supporting and advocating for locally owned businesses in the Midwest, currently representing over 800 member businesses throughout West Michigan.
The organization spent its early years in the heart of Uptown in the revitalized Wealthy Street business district. In the spring of 2016, Local First moved its offices to 345 Fuller NE near Michigan Street. It is served by eight full-time and one part-time staff member. The Local First Educational Foundation furthers the mission of the organization with such signature events as the annual Local First INsight Conference & Series, the Local First Street Party, Lakeshore Street Party, and Fork Fest.