Friday, June 3, 2011

Should I Open a Business in Staunton, VA?

Here's the question I am asked rather frequently by myself and others: Is Staunton, Virginia a good place to do/open a business?

The answer is a list of pros and cons, a list I will now endeavor to create here and now on my blog. I know this blog has a date stamp on it, but I want to repeat it: June 3, 2011.

  • The Staunton Creative Community Fund is a very good organization lead by a person in whom I have some confidence (Meghan Williamson). If you're a little savvy and resilient, you can employ this wonderful agency to incur debt. Debt earns a bad name for a variety of reasons, but in business it's often your first step, and a difficult one. SCCF helps you out.
  • The Tourism Office in Staunton is quite good. They are always attempting to bring people to Staunton and to keep businesses abreast of what's happening in tourism and to keep tourists informed about what's happening in Staunton. People like to visit Staunton, and that's a really fantastic thing.We have a Shakespeare Theatre, two movie houses that show mainstream and art-house fare, sweet architecture, and the Staunton Music Guild, who is attempting to turn Staunton into a music destination.
  • The Staunton Downtown Development Association is pretty awesome. They sponsor and organize events downtown, help businesses communicate with one another and with the local government, and they serve as a shoulder to cry on. By "they" I mean Julie Markowitz and Karen Lawrence.
  • The Staunton community, the people who live here, are the best thing about this place. We have a type of diversity that isn't immediately apparent and is unlike any I have experienced in the world.There is a portion of this population who are filled with a special type of fervor for this place. They will stand up to city hall for you, they will come in droves to your business to help you stay in business, and they will RSVP to your Facebook invites and do all sorts of things that really make you feel like you're part of something awesome and serving people who appreciate you.

  • It's hard to get debt in a small city, and even though SCCF is a wonderful resource, many businesses find themselves out of the running. The board is filled with people who don't know much about doing/owning a business in a small city. We're in the "Enterprise Zone" too, and that's supposed to mean we can get cash from the feds and from the state to help us create jobs and improve our buildings, but almost no one is eligible because the rules are made for businesses in bigger places. It's a frustration that makes you want to give up.
  • The events here that are ostensibly created to bring in outsiders to our area, often just end up bringing the locals out, or people from the county. The worst of these are our music events in the summer that don't seem to be a boon to any business at all. I wish the SDDA or the Tourism Office would just take them over. Also, the park is too far away from downtown, and there is little or no effort to connect it to the businesses in the city. When there are giant events in the park, churches and the like are invited to sell things and advertise there instead of real businesses. We do have one of the most beautiful parks in America that I've seen. Half of it is golf course, but it's enormous, and it's a cool place to hang out all year. It's not being put to use for businesses in any way that I can tell.
  • Downtown has some empty buildings. The reasons for this are numerous, but some of them can be solved by an active government. Empty buildings are bad for business downtown. I wish real estate people would be more interested in pop-up retail and seasonal leases, too. But this brings us to the next problem.
  • The building inspector situation here is a shambles. It's a disgrace. Getting something inspected is impossible, getting inspectors to tell you what they want you to do is impossible, getting inspectors on the phone is impossible. If you have to do ANYTHING that involves building inspectors, don't open a business here. They will bankrupt you by keeping you in a holding pattern like a 747 who can't land but is running out of gas. You can't land, you can't leave, and you can't get them on the radio.
  • The Staunton community is dichotomous. For example, Obama won this town by 12 votes. So, if you can think of a business both sides of that kind of divide would love, good luck. If not, well, good luck. Most businesses try to cater to one side of that, like a "traditional rural/southern/country/old people" business that tourists will also like, or say a "cool/new/edgy/fun/pseudo-urban/hippie/young people" business that tourists will also like. The locals are great, but you can't depend on them to keep you alive, not because they don't want to but because there simply aren't enough of them.

Anyway, that's it for now. I hope this answers the question. . . it probably only broaches it. As you can see, it's a difficult one. Maybe this will help people who want to know.