By Don C. Brunell
At Christmas, millions watch the 1946 movie classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” While it is labeled “fantasy drama,”, the show gives us a glimpse of reality and reminds us of the importance of caring local business owners.
The setting is mythical Bedford Falls, New York, on Christmas Eve. George Bailey, a family man with a wife and four children, was dogged by a greedy banker, Henry Potter, who wanted to shut Bailey Building and Loan Association down. (George inherited the struggling business started by his father.)
The people of Bedford Falls trusted Bailey, but feared the ruthless Potter. Potter wanted to foreclose on families who fell behind on their mortgages whereas Bailey would work tirelessly to keep them in their homes.
When the movie was filmed, it was a time when people actually did business in the towns they lived in. They shopped at stores along Main Street rather than ordering online. If shoppers ordered from the Sears or Montgomery Ward catalogue, the packages were shipped to the local post office.
Savings and Loans Associations — also known as building and loans — were a strong community force assisting people with home mortgages, passbook savings accounts and certificates of deposits.
Borrowers would sit down face-to-face with S&L managers like Bailey who were their friends and neighbors. There were no “loans by phones.” The transactions were in a downtown building, not by a remote connection to financial institution in a distant city.
Thankfully, many communities across America still have people like George Bailey who are their backbones, but staying in business for them is much more challenging today.
Their nemesis isn’t Henry Potter, it is modern online giants that undercut them on price and convenience. Unfortunately, those remote behemoths without store fronts in local communities generally are not the sponsors of Little League teams, high school bands or community festivals. Local businesses are.
Every community has George Baileys. Many own family businesses. Here are few Washington examples.
In Grays Harbor County, the Quiggs build their business constructing piers and wharves. When Aberdeen and Hoquiam needed a new YMCA, the Quiggs led the effort to build it.
The Rants family — Ron, father, and Pat, son — own a long-time Thurston County property management and development business. From the beginning, the Rants have been deeply involved in community projects. One of the most notable was establishing Boys & Girls Clubs. In addition for the last 40 years, Ron volunteered for humanitarian missions to Vietnam and Mexico.
Olympia nursery owners Bruce and Doris Briggs specialized in developing various hybrids of rhododendrons — many of which were donated to local parks. When they finally sold their business, they donated the nursery site to build a badly needed new YMCA.
Orchardists Ralph and Cheryl Broetje grow traditional and new apple varieties on their property along the Snake River just east of Pasco. They built a town with affordable housing, a school, church, store, recreation and community center, and day care for people who worked in their orchards and processing plants. They spend winters working on humanitarian projects in Mexico.
Finally, in the 1950s when fast-food restaurants became the fad, Dick Spady started Dick’s Drive-ins which today are Seattle’s hamburger dynasty. The Spady family pays workers well, provides benefits and education scholarships, and amassed millions for local charities.
There are immeasurable examples of men, women and families in businesses across America, who if they had not existed, would leave a gaping hole in our communities. Their absence would impact America like a Bedford Falls without George Bailey.
Every Christmas we are reminded they give us a wonderful life.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.