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Local businesses contribute to small-town atmosphere, face challenges

April 15, 2010

Small businesses in River Falls have a generally favorable environment, but improvements could be made for economic growth. According to Glenn Potts, an economics professor at UW-River Falls, the town has a “relatively good Main Street.” 

Lund’s Hardware has been a part of downtown for 137 years. Fred Benson, the owner, said the best part about having a small business here is getting to know the customers personally and building lasting relationships with them.

He also said his business has lasted due to a good geographic location and a community that is doing well economically.

Pat Vocovich, owner of the Riverwalk Mercantile, said he decided to put his candy store in River Falls in 2008 also because of the geographic location. Vocovich said the best part about owning and
operating a small business is the repeat customers. 

“Once they see it, they always come back. That’s the good part,” he said.

Both store owners cited variety as the most important aspect of their success.  B

enson said his hardware store has changed a lot over the years, offering services from woodworking and welding to auto repair supplies and the sale of major appliances. 

“We find out what works well and what doesn’t,” he said. 

With a business that has been operating well over 100 years, Benson said the store has had to “change with the times to stay in operation.”

Vocovich said his philosophy is similar. 

“New and different items coming in seems to attract people,” he said. 

Potts echoed both business owners.

“Being well aware of the community is an important part of operating a small business,” he said. “Many small businesses here have a stake in the community, supporting local activities and providing the downtown area with an identity and sense of community.”

The House Committee on Small Business, in their 2009 forum “The State of the Small Business Economy and Assessing Policies to Promote Economic Growth,” called small businesses the “engine of our economy.”

Unfortunately for the economy, small businesses face a laundry list of challenges, some before they even open their doors. 

“Financing remains difficult for small business owners across the country, even those that are making a profit,” President Barack Obama said in the 2009 State of the Union Address.

The amount of debt entrepreneurs incur through running a businesses can also be a struggle, according to Potts. 

“You can have tons of customers and still fail,” he said. “Often beginning business owners start out with too much debt and they think too far ahead.”

Business owners in River Falls have another issue to contend with: parking in the downtown area. Residents that live in River Falls subdivisions not directly beside downtown Main Street must walk long distances for their shopping, and the limited parking available downtown can be a deterrent.

Vocovich cited another issue, stemming from city regulations, which negatively affected his business from the start. River Falls has some strict guidelines in the use of signage in front of businesses.

Vocovich said more signage allowances along Main St. would have assisted him in attracting customers to his location.

It took Vocovich six months to obtain one sign and he said he would appreciate more, but the city has a lot of restrictions on what sort of signs and awnings businesses are allowed to put up. 

The Main Street Project, a committee created in 1989 to manage the Business Improvements District, provides fifty cents for every dollar spent on signs and awnings that meet the requirements. 

According to the Main Street Project Web site, the committee’s goal is to “provide matching sign and façade improvement grants to business owners within the BID.”
 
However, these improvements have to match the city’s guidelines relating to size, material and lighting.

“There are no guarantees when operating a small business,” Potts said, “and some issues can be controlled by the owners while others are out of their hands. New small businesses are the future of our economy, and every effort should be made to encourage their presence in River Falls.”