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Downtown needs more than one-time festivals, parades and special events to attract and retain viable businesses, according to merchants and public officials. Long-range planning and private capital investment is crucial to create a stronger business backbone, they agree.
Organizers estimate as many as 2,500 will crowd the courthouse square Saturday for the annual Sweet Owen Day festival. Music, activities, a “fun run” and an inaugural pageant will entice people there. And while downtown merchants say they’re expecting to reap additional revenues from increased pedestrian traffic, the surge in sales from festival-goers will likely fade faster than the last days of summer.
Larry Tackett’s Men’s Wear, located on the square, plans a canopy clearance sale during the one-day event.
“We usually have a pretty good crowd” for the festival, said owner Larry Tackett.
YOUniquely-U, a new downtown consignment shop, plans to discount its summer stock by 75 percent, said Kara Herald, a co-owner of the store. An outside rack will also advertise two-for-a-dollar clothing deals this Saturday, she said.
But despite optimism from retailers, sales have been disappointing lately for some on the square and officials say the seasonal farmer’s market is generating less than expected crowds and revenues.
Several factors makes it difficult to sustain business here, said Frank Downing, executive director for Owen County Chamber of Commerce.
“Sometimes people start a business on a whim without doing adequate research,” he said.
Many entrepreneurs don’t devise sound business plans, he said, or over saturate the market with certain goods or services. Successful business owners have to distinguish themselves by offering quality goods and services that people demand, Downing advised.
A CLOSER LOOK
Chino’s, a new family-owned Mexican restaurant, opened earlier this month at 125 W. Seminary St. — a site that’s formerly housed a tearoom, three failed restaurants and a graphics design shop.
What could give the new restaurant an edge over other businesses that floundered there?
For starters, Downing says the Mexican restaurant is offering something the county doesn’t have — ethnic food.
Before its debut, owners of Chino’s Mexican Restaurant told the News-Herald it would offer a variety of Mexican and American menu items and cater to picky eaters. It also plans to remain open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. — most businesses on the square shutter before 5:30 p.m. and few are open weekends.
But even those distinctions won’t make Chino’s immune to failure.
According to a study by the U.S. Small Business Association, only two-thirds of start-ups survive their first year. Less than half make it four years, the study found.
Small-business owners located in small towns can find business sustainability even more difficult to find a niche.
“We just don’t have the volume here,” Downing said.
A number of seemingly successful businesses have closed over the years because the owners simply lost interest in the operation. Others have failed because of poor business practices and an even poorer economy.
The now defunct Dairy Queen on Ky. 22 was sold at public auction to its Grant County guarantor for nearly $585,000 after the owner faced escalating franchising fees and increased competition from fast-food Goliath, McDonald’s.
So, if a county can’t support two competing fast-food chains, what can it support?
“We don’t know really,” Downing said.
That’s because it’s been more than 30 years since a comprehensive survey has been conducted to assess those demands. And even the most comprehensive interest survey isn’t always consistent or accurate, some officials say.
“We say we want something, but we don’t always support it,” said Owen County Judge-executive Carolyn Keith.
One thing is clear: Owen County continues to lose business to surrounding counties.
As many as 3,000 workers — more than 75 percent of households in the county — commute from the area, Downing said.
That means Frankfort, Florence and other population centers are likely reaping benefits from Owen County consumers.
“People will get in their cars and drive for what they can get here,” Keith said. “If you work in Frankfort, it’s so convenient to go to Kroger and get a product.”
The county’s isolated location also hinders business growth — it isn’t located on a major interstate and remains more than 45 minutes from a major metropolitan area.
Unless it grows, it’s unlikely to attract big-box retailers such as Walmart, which Downing says are straying away from small-town stores to erect larger Supercenters in more desirable areas.
SO WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Rural communities everywhere face similar challenges of attracting viable businesses. That’s why five years ago, officials from a development corporation in Hazelton, N.D. — a farming town with no stoplight, three churches and a bank— offered businesses free lots and up to $50,000 for setting up shop in the town. Homeowners who relocated there were also given up to two lots and $20,000.
After fielding calls from a number of prospective entrepreneurs — only one out-of-state family actually relocated to open a bistro.
Eventually, it closed — now, the former Florida family is reportedly trying to move from the town back to Miami, according to reports from North Dakota media outlets following their story.
Those types of lucrative incentives are unlikely to be offered here — especially since a national recession has stymied the economy.
Governments are financially strapped as much as private enterprise these days, said Keith, who sees localism as a short-term solution for business growth.
Born out of a movement to cultivate local culture and identity, “localism” fosters support for local production and consumption of goods. It’s an intentional form of consumerism that asks locals to think about where they spend their money.
“We live here because we like the quality of rural life,” Keith. “But we need to do business with local places.”
County officials also need to forge a long-term plan, said Keith, who offered guidance to any entrepreneurs looking to apply for start-up loans and other assistance.
Until it can afford to hire an economic development director to seek out public and private grants, Owen County will continue to rely on less costly strategies to cultivate businesses.
Leadership Owen County — the county’s public-private partnership — has beautified downtown with planters and will add mums in time for this weekend’s festival.
Owenton Mayor David “Milkweed” Wotier told Chamber of Commerce leaders he’s attempting to fill vacant storefronts and is negotiating with water company officials to paint the town’s water tower.
Officials and business leaders say it’s that kind of creative ingenuity that will jump-start the community — but most believe the county must support itself, before outsiders make investments in its future.