Posted: December 9, 2013 at 9:45 pm

By: Doug Walp, Alex Dye and Morgan Farr

Small and local businesses, once a staple of Main Street America, have begun to disappear throughout the state of West Virginia in recent years.

In fact, the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy reports that West Virginia lost nearly 4,000 of its small businesses (500 employees or less), from 2000 to 2010 alone, which equates to over 12 percent of the state’s total small employers.

An overwhelming 96 percent of the state’s employers are small businesses, which also demonstrates just how integral local businesses have been to West Virginia’s economy throughout the state’s history.

Current and former small business owners across the state assert that the consistent decline stems from a constantly growing and changing set of obstacles that many small business will face at some point.

The intersection of High Street and Willey Street will be the new home to a Panera Bread in Morgantown. This is just one of the many new chains including Sheetz and CVS, that will be opening downtown this year.

The intersection of High Street and Willey Street will be the new home to a Panera Bread in Morgantown. This is just one of the many new chains including Sheetz and CVS, that will be opening downtown this year. Photo by Morgan Farr

One example is the amount of corporate expansion within West Virginia over the last 10 years. According to data from the U.S. Census, 6,998 corporate positions were added between 2000 and 2010, the exact same time period over which West Virginia experienced a fairly significant decline in regards to small and local businesses.

These figures have left some local and small business owners wondering just how level the playing field is with regards to business opportunities, i.e. tax rates, zoning laws, etc., in the Mountain State.

“Corporations already have enough advantages in America,” said Marion Ohlinger, former Morgantown small business employee. “They have huge tax breaks, they have the kind of buying power that lets them pay 20 percent off for their product for what we pay for it. You can’t compete with them.

“A lot of people just give into that and just go with the fact that they can make a little more money. It’s easier and more profitable, but I’m a West Virginian. We do things our own way. And we do them for ourselves, that’s how I was raised.”

West Virginia’s fifth biggest city, Morgantown, has become not only a microcosm for this transition but a hotbed for its debate in recent months as a myriad of local restaurants and businesses have been forced to shut down after being unable to compete with the seemingly endless legislative and fiscal resources of corporate America.

The Richwood Grill in Morgantown, W. Va., specialized in organic global cuisine from locally grown ingredients. The restaurant closed its doors on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013.

The Richwood Grill in Morgantown, W. Va., specialized in organic global cuisine from locally grown ingredients. The restaurant closed its doors on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013. Photo by Morgan Farr

Right now, there is a second Starbucks and Panera Bread, a third CVS pharmacy and Subway, and a fourth Sheetz gas station all currently being built either on or in close proximity to High Street, which is basically Morgantown’s “Main Street” or downtown area.

At the same time, beloved local restaurants like the Golden Finch and the Richwood Grill, where the previously mentioned Ohlinger served as the executive chef, have closed their doors for good in the last month.

But West Virginia’s residents aren’t just standing idly by.

Ashley Kane is the owner of the Mountain People’s Cooperative, a local market that has provided natural, organic and fair trade products to residents since 1977. Recently, Kane created an online petition at www.change.org, asking the Morgantown City Council to pass a resolution giving priority to local businesses regarding property development decisions in downtown Morgantown.

“It started with us looking to relocate and expand, and we were looking at the same property Sheetz was interested in, as well as the Boys and Girls Club of America,” Kane said. “When we found out Sheetz got several of the variances they asked for, it passed under everyone’s radar, including the city council and the mayor’s, who were very upset about it.

“We’re just trying to raise awareness of the city plan, and how these large businesses are going directly against their city plan [of the mayor and city council], trying to raise awareness of how the downtown district is being treated and how all these big businesses are getting everything handed to them, when these types of businesses don’t pour back into the community.”

Kane is just one of a number of West Virginia’s small businesses owners and other entities that believe as more and more corporations supplant local businesses, the surrounding community subsequently suffers.

Customers waiting to be seated for dinner on Nov. 8, the last Friday evening the Richwood Grill would be open for business in Morgantown, W.Va.

Customers waiting to be seated for dinner on Nov. 8, the last Friday evening the Richwood Grill would be open for business in Morgantown, W.Va. Photo by Morgan Farr

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit research organization that provides technical assistance and solutions regarding economic development in local communities, backs these claims stating that compared to corporation chains, “locally owned businesses recycle a much larger share of their revenue back into the local economy, supporting a wide range of jobs and enriching the whole community.”

THE ILSR also cites better wages and better use of public services as reasons why local businesses are better for communities than corporate conglomerates.

The National Federation of Independent Business notes that where corporations can hold revenue offshore and keep out of the tax cycle and local revenue streams, small business owners continually pump money directly into their communities via tax revenue.

Kane has already collected 933 signatures for her petition at change.org and is now planning to submit an official petition to Mayor Jenny Selin and Morgantown’s City Council, which requires signatures from 1,662 registered voters in order to bring a proposed ordinance to the floor.

“We want to create a strong push in resurgence of local entrepreneurship to fill in all these vacancies that are in demand downtown,” Kane said. “The city is losing money left and right, and that’s why we’re upset. They’re welcoming in all this outside money that won’t pour back into us, while we should be supporting the resurgence of local business.”

But other former small business owners contradict claims that the decline can be attributed solely to incoming corporate entities or inaction by local government. They say ultimately it’s just been a variety of factors that have been working together to slowly erode the local business presence in West Virginia.

One issue in particular that has come into play in Morgantown specifically is the fact that the downtown or “Main Street” area has transformed into more of a student haven over the last 10 years. Many of the longest-lasting small businesses lining High Street have been family-orientated restaurants or venues, but with a new record-high student population every year, these establishments have been faced with the challenge of completely changing their target audience.

“I kind of blame myself. We didn’t capture the college crowd, and that seems to be turning into downtown,” said former Golden Finch owner, Tasia Thompson. “We had never needed that before. We had always had our families. We were devastated by this. Fifteen people lost their jobs from us closing.”

Regardless of the particular circumstances, it’s become increasingly clear that keeping a small business afloat in West Virginia has become substantially more difficult over the last decade, for a number of different reasons.

Whether its tax breaks, zoning laws, the seemingly infinite resources of an incoming corporation, or even just simply being able to consistently cater to the ever-changing demographics of West Virginia’s biggest towns and cities, there exists an entire host of obstacles for small and local businesses to overcome in order to be continually successful in the Mountain State.

 

Richwood Grill Owner Discusses Future of Morgantown Business