What three local businesses would you miss if they were to close their doors forever? This is the question that the "3/50 project" suggests that we consider before shopping online or at a Big Box store this year.

After 20 years, I still miss Ford's Coffee Shop, Thompsons Office Supply (aka "The Paper Store") and Barcelo's Market (aka "The Co-Op). I loved taking my young children to Ford's for grilled cheese sandwiches, walking across the street for colorful markers at Thompson's, and then on to

Barcelo's Market to pick up a missing ingredient for that night's dinner, without ever manipulating a child's car seat or spending one dime on gas.

The 3/50 project urges you to try to spend $50 per month with three of your cherished businesses, which would result in $34 per establishment returned to the community, versus $21 for national chains, and a big goose egg (not the golden kind) for online shopping.

Of course, there are many other, significant long term benefits for us to shop locally. Among them:

Local businesses provide important tax revenues to the community.

Local businesses keep our downtown landscape welcoming and desirable to our current residents as well as to our prospective future residents. This helps stabilize or increase our home values.

Local businesses provide a vibrant, accessible town center, reducing automobile use, and its damaging effect on our local environment.

Local businesses provide jobs. These are jobs that are more rewarding, enriching, with a shorter commute than Big Box stores, and that encourage employees to shop locally and increase the revenue multiplier effect.

Local businesses support local causes—our schools, charities and institutions.

Here is one example of the tangible and intangible benefits to all of us of patronizing a local business:

Andover Animal Hospital has provided a valuable service to our community since 1958. Many of us know Dr. Richard Lindsay Sr., founder, who has contributed so much to the Andover community, and continues to do so in his retirement. I have personally benefited from his great wisdom on several occasions.

On June 17, 2003 - a date seared into my memory - I delivered a dead, rabid raccoon to Dr. Lindsay, after learning that he was the only ceterinarian in Essex County who could prepare the animal for rabies testing. On his recommendation, I then proceeded —poste haste— to

LGH for the first of several rounds of shots, which, quite plausibly, could have saved my life.

In another memorable family trauma, he removed a "cherry eye" from our hamster. I had previously been told that to correct this grotesque malformation, I'd need to check the rodent in to a hospital, where, under general anesthesia, a veterinary ophthalmologist would perform surgery. Cha Ching. In one 10 minute, decisive maneuver, Dr. Lindsay corrected a problem that spared "Tiger" a one-way trip to that great

hamster wheel in the sky.

Andover Animal Hospital's impact on our town is hugely significant. Diane Tower, current owner and daughter of Dr. Lindsay, pays a staff of 48, serves on the Board of the Boys and Girls Club in Lawrence, Lazarus House and Ironstone Farms programs. She hires students from Essex Agricultural School. She is an active member of Great Women to Know, bringing veterinarians to Esperanza Academy to inspire and inform fifth through eighth grade Lawrence girls on the annual "Shadow Day". She uses the hospital's freezers to store turkeys and other ingredients of a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner for the faculty, staff, and students at Esperanza Academy in Lawrence. And, she provides an invaluable professional service to animal owners throughout Essex County.

Make 2011 the year of living locally. Try the 3/50 rule. $50 a month at three local businesses. Invest in the quality of life of our community. Support our schools, our neighborhoods, our causes, and our community. Which Andover institutions would you miss?

Meg Rokos is chairwoman of the Board of "Great Women to Know" and a Realtor at Prudential, Howe, and Doherty.

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