Marvin Belknap has started a support group, of sorts, for small businesses in hopes of resolving problems they share.
Belknap, who owns The Coffee Shop, and Tan Pro Oregon, held a small business forum with city officials to discuss those problems.
“We invited any business owner with 50 or fewer employees. There’s a lot of concern that small businesses are faltering, and not able to make it in Oregon. So I wanted to host a forum so everyone could ask questions,” Belknap said at a committee of the whole meeting on Oct. 19.
Belknap hopes to form a small business task force outside the Chamber and Oregon Economic Development Foundation that would work with the city administrator, public service director, and possibly law director to find ways to promote small business and help “relieve some stress and burden on us.”
“A lot of our members are tired of seeing people go to the other side of the river to do things, to shop, go to dinner, enjoy themselves,” he said.
Some common concerns of small businesses, said Belknap, include relaxing a stringent sign code and architectural committee regulations “that drives business away.”
“The sign code is the biggest thing small businesses are dealing with right now. We are hoping we could either revamp or adjust it to allow additional signage for small businesses to help get our name out there. A lot of us can’t compete with the big names, like Wal-Mart, Tim Horton’s, McDonald’s. We need help from the city,” said Belknap.
“We don’t want to be part of the Chamber or Oregon Economic Development Foundation on this. This is something we want to do on our own because we’re a whole different demographic. We need all the assistance we can get,” said Belknap.
He said his coffee shop has been struggling for some time, and the Oregon Tan Pro is “on cruise control.”
“We need help to get small business on this side of the river and to really help drive this community,” he said.
At a council meeting on Oct. 26, Gary Thompson, president of the Oregon Economic Development Foundation, said he wanted to give assurances that the Foundation works with small businesses and tries “to make them successful.”
“We try to connect small businesses to big businesses. We bend over backwards to do things, much like the kind of calls you guys get as elected officials,” Thompson said to council. “People wonder why their garbage isn’t picked up, or grass cut. We get a lot of strange phone calls from small businesses. Everything from `How do I get a packet from the board of elections,’ to `How do I get a sign lit up, to `How do I get the police to direct traffic so my workers can get out and turn left on Navarre Avenue.’ All kinds of crazy and wonderful things.”
Thompson said he set up a meeting between small business owners and city officials in February.
“A lot of small businesses complain they don’t get to do any business with the City of Oregon. We learned there’s not one central purchasing agent in the city. So we invited members of our Foundation, and other small businesses, to come to Oak Shade Grove, spend the evening and meet with city officials to find out the kinds of things they buy and sell. So if you are a business, and you sell those things, you can exchange your business cards, and find out when you can do those kinds of things. Those are the kinds of services we provide to small business. We do it every day. We are happy to do it. If you call me and I’m not in my office, I guarantee I will call you within 24 hours,” said Thompson.
He said the Foundation will help Belknap “whenever we can.”
Councilman Jim Seaman said the city has a couple of “turnkey” restaurants that are going out of business, such as Casa De Oro, and the All American Pie on Navarre.
The city, he said, needs to “reach out and find people who have a track record who will come in and operate those restaurants.”
“Sometimes it takes someone to go to the Detroit area, or Dearborn or the Findlay area, where there’s families who have a track record, who have financial resources, and wouldn’t mind moving their families to the Oregon and Toledo area and operate those buildings, where they can get in relatively inexpensively. That’s one way of succeeding,” he said.
P.J. Kapfhammer, co-owner of Maumee Bay Turf Center, praised Thompson for his work at the Foundation.
“I think he’s done an excellent job for the city,” said Kapfhammer, who is a member of the Foundation and the Chamber of Commerce. “As bad as it’s been, he still has been able to attract some businesses here. So I congratulate him.”
He added, however, that he “definitely sees where there’s a void in the community with business owners.”
Belknap, he said, is “taking the place” of the Chamber of Commerce.
“There is a void where you don’t know where to go. You have hundreds of business owners in Oregon who feel they’re alone, who are dealing with the city, the codes or zoning, by themselves,” said Kapfhammer.
Belknap said he never intended to “get into a bickering contest with the Foundation.”
“Our group was formed to allow people who do not belong to the Foundation, and who do not belong to the Chamber, and who do not wish to belong to the Foundation or Chamber, to come and voice their differences and concerns,” Belknap told council. “Our only intent is to get you involved, along with the business owners who don’t go to the Foundation, who don’t go to the Chamber, who have problems and are looking for ways to find results to those problems. That was our only goal – to come to you as a group. A lot of people don’t have the money to join the Foundation and Chamber. They’re looking for another voice to help them out. I don’t know if my voice carries any weight. But I’m trying to help other businesses out who are faltering and having problems. That’s why we’re having these meetings. It’s more of a support group that can get you all to come and talk to us and show us where we can go and get those results,” said Belknap.
“There’s nothing wrong with us having this group,” he continued. “We were encouraged not to do it. There’s a group of us who still want to do it. I receive two to three phone calls per week at my coffee shop, people asking when we’re going to have the next one. That’s why we scheduled another one. We’re just a group of people who get together inviting leadership to come, sit with us, and answer our questions.”
The group has already resolved a couple of problems, such as getting trees removed in front of Alan Miller’s sign. And Belknap said Administrator Ken Filipiak told him that business owners will be able to fill out an evaluation sheet about their experiences with the zoning inspector.
“We’re not asking for big things. We’re asking for little things. We’re a group of small business owners who want a bigger voice,” said Belknap.
The next meeting, he said, is Nov. 13 at 10 a.m.