By Curt Yeomans
FOREST PARK — John Chafin said his Forest Park-based business, Christian’s Pharmacy, gets hit from all sides.
There are the larger pharmacy chains such as CVS and Walgreens, he said, that try to lure away his customers, steep local taxes that eat into his profits and new federal health care mandates that require him to pay out more to keep his employees insured. It’s a story that has plagued many small businesses.
The result, Chafin said, is that places like Main Street in Forest Park are lined with empty storefronts.
“If you look up and down Main Street, where are all of the small businesses?” said Chafin. “They’re pretty much all gone. We’ve got a little bit on this end, but if you look in the middle, they’ve been bought and torn down. They were glad to go. They were looking to go.
“There’s really no advantage to being in a small town anymore,” he added.
A business with less than 50 employees reflects 84 percent of all businesses, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Georgia Tech. Refine that view to look at businesses with less than 20 employees and that includes 75 percent of all businesses.
These figures are included the countywide Comprehensive Strategic Economic Development Plan the researchers recently completed.
Clayton County Chamber of Commerce President Yulonda Beauford said it had been several years since an economic development study had been done in the county and this helped officials realize how widespread the small business community is.
“That’s an area we need to spend some time focusing on as a community,” said Beauford.
To that end, the needs of small business owners are a central component of the development plan. One of the recommended long-term goals is to “recognize the importance of entrepreneurship and small businesses in Clayton County.”
Researchers recommended the county find a way to measure small business support activities, create a small business support expert position, establish a loan-fund to help small businesses expand and provide support to immigrant small business owners.
The needs of small businesses
Jeanne Lowery, owner of Jonesboro-area quilt shop, Quilts and Fixins, has trouble with crime because criminals keep breaking down her front door and stealing her cash register. She said it’s happened a few times and although the register is sometimes empty when it’s taken, she still has to shell out money to replace it and the door every time a theft occurs.
“They really only want the cash register and the money because I don’t think anybody is going to break in to steal a yard of fabric,” said Lowery.
While she isn’t blaming county officials for break-ins, Quilts and Fixins is located just outside the Jonesboro city limits which puts it under the jurisdiction of county police. She hopes a solution has been found.
“My landlord just installed a Plexiglas door, so we’ll see if that solves the problem,” she said.
But criminals aren’t the only issue Lowery has to deal with as a small business owner. She said she has to pay the county $100 twice a year to undergo mandatory fire inspections. A bigger business can afford to absorb that cost, she said, but it can be hurtful to a small business’ bottom line.
“If you’ve had a slow week right before they do the inspection, then $100 is a lot to ask a small business to pay,” she said.
There are other areas where small businesses could be helped.
Christie Willis said more could be done to promote the privately-owned restaurants in the county, including featuring them when they host business leaders from outside the county. She is the daughter of Kathy and John Chafin and helps her mother run Anne and Bill’s Restaurant in Forest Park.
“They could give us catering business,” Willis said. “When they host meetings or different events, they could use a lot of the local businesses.”
The Comprehensive Strategic Economic Development Plan shows there were 74 restaurants in the county that have four or less employees as of 2011. That’s a 25 percent decline from 2007, when there were 99 small restaurants in the county. Still, the restaurant industry ranks second on a list of firms with similar numbers of employees as of 2011. It was behind gas stations and convenience stores, which included 88 businesses.
Playing a game geared toward big business
Chafin said the county should offer the same tax incentives to small businesses that are typically offered to large businesses and companies. “The big industries, if you look at it, they get advantages,” said Chafin. “They don’t offer tax advantages to a small business. If you bring so many employees in, they’ll give you a tax advantage. They’ll do this, that and whatever for you.”
In addition to Christian’s Pharmacy, Chafin also runs several other small businesses in Forest Park, including a florist, a health services business, an auto shop and a medical supply store.
Most of them are located in the same row of shops on Forest Park’s Main Street. Chafin said he pays $30,000 per year in property taxes on those shops. “Most people don’t even make that much money,” he said.
Chafin also said Forest Park charges him business license fees based on how many employees he has. “So, it’s not conducive for you to hire anyone because all you’re going to do is pay more money,” he said.
Cumulatively, he has about 70 employees who work for him, but he said there are no more than 15 workers at each business.
“Pretty much the only way you’re going to do well as a small business is if you’ve got family involved because the restrictions as far as the amount of money you make for insurance is extremely high,” said Chaffin. “It’s pretty hard for small businesses to make it with the profit margins.”
Other recommendations for improvement
There are five other long-term goals the Georgia Tech researchers recommended the county focus on to improve its economy. Those goals are:
• Improve the internal and external image of Clayton County
• Develop better and broader relationship between the private and public sector in Clayton County
• Create more opportunities for Clayton County residents to find and retain employment
• Refine targeted industry sectors for business recruitment
• Grow the impact of public higher education institutions on Clayton County’s economic development
Grant Wainscott, director of the county’s economic development department, said it’s up to Clayton County officials to find a way to meet those recommended goals now that the researchers have finished their part.
“We now have a road map that recognizes the value of — and brings in — the entire community, providing for levels of responsibility and accountability,” he said.