Margot C. Lester
Since the quarter-cent tax initiative was put down on Election Day, thereâ€™s been a lot of talk lately about what we should do to help build the local economy. But what do the actual small-business owners want? While the big boys looked for bailouts, owners of smaller enterprises just want a little help.
â€œAdministering and paying for health care and social security for employees is a large expense for businesses,â€ says Bill Soeters, owner/operator of The UPS Store (theupsstorelocal.com/3651) in Carrboro Plaza. â€œChanges that result in individuals doing business directly with health care providers and directly saving for retirement would be an improvement.â€
Sarah Vignola, owner of Taqueria Tres Amigos (tresamigoscarrboro.com) on Main Street, also has an idea for the feds. â€œPerhaps tax breaks or some other sort of help for owners of small businesses. I have tried to reach out for help getting student loans deferred, and because I didnâ€™t have a pay stub, I was denied.Â I tried showing documentation from my business but that didnâ€™t count.â€
Local government could also lend a hand.
â€œI would like to see the county spearhead a countywide Think Local First Campaign that would tie together local farm and food, professional and trade services, green building, banking and retail â€“ and to promote the benefits of supporting them to the public,â€ says Soeters, who also is chairman of the Carrboro Economic Sustainability Commission. As a part of that, Vignola suggests â€œsome incentive for owners of [commercial] property to keep the rent low for local businesses.â€
Brian Russell, owner of Carrboro Creative Coworking (carrborocoworking.com) on Lloyd Street, also wants more local involvement in supporting the business base. And as a member of the Orange County Economic Development Commission Advisory Board, he certainly has the ears of the right people.
â€œIâ€™d like to see the county manager propose areas of local government that could be performed more efficiently and more cost effectively by start-up for profits and nonprofits â€“ new businesses only,â€ he says. â€œWe have several successful examples of organizations that perform valuable services to our community independent of government, such as OWASA, Community Home Trust and the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service. I am not suggesting wholesale privatization of public services but a realization that expertise exists outside of government that can accomplish the peopleâ€™s goals. Paying outside organizations could accomplish the creation of new local businesses and save tax payers money.â€
Show me the money
Of course, none of these ideas can come to fruition without money. And without funds from the quarter-cent sales tax available, local economic-development officials are looking elsewhere for the bucks to grow the local economy.
County economic-development officials looked to the federal government for help with the Piedmont Food and Agricultural Processing Center in Hillsborough. Scheduled to be completed next spring, the project was awarded a $193,100 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act grant last week. The infusion of cash will go toward the purchase of commercial-grade walk-in coolers, food processors and dehydrators that will enable area entrepreneurs to process local agricultural and food products.Â
Chapel Hill decided to self-fund enhancements to its economic-development program with a $100,000 allocation approved at last weekâ€™s town council meeting. Despite coming less than a week after voters turned back the quarter-cent tax, some of which would have gone to economic development, the funding had been in consideration since the spring budget cycle.
Thirty thousand dollars â€“ in two $15,000 increments â€“ will be used to retain a local land planner to help the town and prospective developers â€œgenerate a preliminary concept plan that comes close to meeting all expectations,â€ explains Dwight Bassett, Chapel Hillâ€™s economic-development officer. The planner will work with the developer to make sure their proposals include elements that meet town requirements. This should make the review process more effective and efficient. â€œItâ€™s not anything more than facilitating our process.â€
The remaining $70,000 will be used to help Chapel Hill â€œbecome a real participating player in the Triangle market,â€ Bassett says. An office market study done earlier this year showed the town would benefit from growing that sector, and these funds will help do that. The town will join the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, a public-private organization designed to drive business in the 13-county area. Bassettâ€™s team also will use the funding to respond to data requests from and create proposals for developers and companies looking to site projects in the area.
â€œWe need to do a better job of telling our story,â€ Bassett allows. â€œA lot of people think weâ€™re business unfriendly. Weâ€™re trying to be more friendly. Weâ€™re not all the way there yet, but I think this initiative will have an impact on how people start to think about Chapel Hill.â€
Open for business?
Honestly, though, itâ€™s not just Chapel Hill that has that reputation.
â€œI think Orange County is â€˜knownâ€™ to the surrounding area to be hard to work with when opening a new business,â€ says Sherry Gray, president of the Yesterday and Today Frame Shop (yesterdayandtodayframeshop.com) in Hillsborough. â€œI canâ€™t say that is my own experience since I bought an existing business in 1995, but I do hear other potential business owners have that opinion. Iâ€™m sure no one really wants the Orange County I-40 corridor to be one Tanger Outlet Center after another, but itâ€™s easy to imagine the economic jolt that Mebane and Alamance County is getting since that opening last weekend.â€
In truth, building the commercial tax base enough to significantly ease the burden on private citizens will require a vibrant and sustainable local economy made up of larger responsible companies and homegrown entrepreneurs. (I know some of you just branded me a heretic.)
â€œSmall business is beautiful, but not the only kind we need in Orange County,â€ Russell says. â€œWe can have small, medium and large businesses in Orange County that have shared values with citizens.â€
Yes, we can!
Visart going dark
Downtown Carrboro will lose a longtime business early next year when Visart closes its doors. Andrea Kubachko, who owns the business with her husband, says the store will cease operation in mid-February when the lease expires.
â€œThe video business isnâ€™t what it used to be,â€ Kubacho laments. â€œWith Netflix and computer downloads and pay-per-view, itâ€™s not a good business model. Weâ€™ve been in it over 20 years and itâ€™s time to let it go.â€
DVDs and other merchandise in the storeâ€™s vast inventory will be on sale to the public sometime in December, but a firm date has not been set.
The storeâ€™s 7,000-square-foot floorplate will leave a gaping hole in the commercial landscape. No word yet on any plans to fill the space.
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