Thursday, January 3, 2008

Wheaton, We (May) Have a Problem…

Part One of a Three-Part Series by Holly Olson.

The Wheaton community suffered another loss recently when restaurant owner Victor Lantang closed his Indonesian restaurant, Sabang. If you never had an opportunity to visit Sabang, I can tell you that you missed out. They had one of the best lunch buffets in town.

The closing of Sabang comes on the heels of two other Wheaton businesses closing their doors: Bonifant, a used bookstore, and Barnaby’s Sports Pub and Restaurant. What these three businesses all had in common was that they were long-time members of the Wheaton community.

The fact that businesses close is nothing new. Costs have been increasing and rents in the Wheaton area have been rising — perhaps at a rate higher than justified by the market. And, as re-development in Wheaton continues (albeit slowly), many business owners will have to either adapt or will themselves close. This is part of change and a reality that we all must face.

However, for three long-time businesses to have closed in such a short time period is worrisome. Yes, the vast majority of small businesses are still operating, but how many have to close or relocate before this becomes a trend? When does it become a problem? Personally, I would rather err on the side of caution and hope that the county would be as proactive as possible in terms of providing assistance to our small business owners. So what should the County be doing to help them?

My sense is that the County actually does a pretty good job in terms of providing services. There are in fact, lots of services available — everything from technical assistance to loans. The deficiencies in Wheaton seem to exist more in the area of outreach. Therefore, I have laid out five outreach components that I believe are essential for helping Wheaton small businesses survive.

1. Develop relationships with the business owners.
Let me blunt about this: Many Wheaton business owners do not trust the County. Period. The only way to gain that trust back is to develop a positive working relationship with them. They need to know that the County is there for them and that they have someone that they can go to – whether it is about the latest redevelopment “gossip” or to discuss resources for training assistance.

2. Anticipate the needs of the businesses
Even organizations with the best of intentions can misconstrue the needs of their customers. By building relationships with business owners, the County will be able to better anticipate their needs. So, instead of the County providing businesses with what they think they need, they can provide them with what they actually need.

3. Recognize Wheaton’s diversity
Wheaton has tremendous diversity in terms of the demographic composition of its owners and the types of businesses available. Demographically, it means that there will be language and cultural differences that the County will need to account for. In terms of businesses, it means that the County can not just focus on one type of business, such as restaurants, but all types of businesses.

4. Partner with external organizations
The bottom-line is that the County simply does not posses the resources to be everything to every one of the small businesses. To be so would be incredibly inefficient and a waste of taxpayer money. That is why it is essential that the County continue to partner with organizations such as Latino Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) to help fill in the gaps. LEDC is a non-profit organization that provides technical assistance, training, and financing to small business owners. Although fairly new to Wheaton, they have already provided a number of micro-loans to area businesses and have been essential in conducting outreach to many of Wheaton’s ethnic business owners.

5. Communicate, communicate, communicate
This is perhaps the area that the County needs to work on the most. Despite the multitude of services available, most business owners don’t know they exist. In addition, like any small community, rumors abound among business owners—particularly about redevelopment. Many of these rumors are false and often involve some variant of a business getting kicked out for the sake of redevelopment. This creates a sense of paranoia and distrust among the business owners. To effectively communicate, the County needs to do so through a variety of modes: internet, email, hard-copy flyers and newsletters, seminars, town halls, and in-person visits. When businesses are well-informed, they will feel more confident that the County has their back.

Some of what I have just discussed is already taking place through the Wheaton redevelopment office. But this office does not have the resources to handle all of the above work alone. For this effort to truly be successful, it will take a commitment from the County and resources from all facets of the County government.

Holly Olson is the former Chair of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee.

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