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Businesses uncertain leading up to election

Hall County fairing better than neighbors

POSTED: October 6, 2012 11:59 p.m.

Getting a small business off the ground and running smoothly has always been a difficult chore.

In a slow recovery following the worst recession since the Great Depression, achieving success is an even mightier challenge, but folks like Jeff Joyner are giving it their best.

“A lot of business owners are wearing more hats than they ever have been because you just can’t hire the help and keep the doors open,” said the co-owner of Cabinets, Floors & More on Mundy Mill Road in Oakwood.

And these are uncertain times, business owners and observers say, with the nation’s struggling economy as the centerpiece issue in the Nov. 6 election.

Some days, the news is good, such as consumer confidence being up. And some days, it’s bleak, filled with talk of a fractured Congress feuding over expiring tax cuts and credits.

“I’m fearful of this next election,” Joyner said. “We can’t continue ... the route we’re going. The government is getting its hands too much into areas where you can’t grow businesses like you could in the past and employ more people.”

Small businesses aren’t the only ones concerned.

“The manufacturing sector depends on a strong economy, and what we’re seeing is there is so much hesitation, with the outcome of the election,” said Phil Sutton, chief administrative officer at Kubota Manufacturing of America Co. “Our production numbers have not increased as rapidly as we’d like to have expected over the last two or three years.

“Everybody is worried about, for example, what is health care going to cost. This is the season where everybody goes through renewing health care contracts for employee benefits. We have 280 or 300 suppliers — a lot of them are smaller businesses — and a lot of them are scared to death about what it’s going to cost them.”

Of course, the economy is better in some places than others. And Hall County, local and state officials have said, is faring much better than many of its neighbors.

A recent report by Atlanta-based Garner Economics LLC states that the Gainesville metropolitan area is one of 23 nationwide — and the only one in Georgia — that has outpaced the nation in the employment growth rate every month since September 2010.

The unemployment rate dropped to 7.2 percent in August, down from 7.7 percent in July and lower than Georgia’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 9.2 percent, according to the Georgia Department of Labor.

“The economy largely seems to have stabilized for some time,” said Ron E. Simmons, area director for the University of Georgia’s Small Business Development Center in Gainesville. “It hasn’t gotten any worse — not like it was for a while there.

“There are bright spots in the economy where our clients are growing rapidly. Some of my clients indicate strong sales increases; others indicate they’re just holding on. And some are just taking a wait-and-see attitude, which is kind of interesting.”

SBDC offices provide training and free consulting services, including, among other things, help with business plan development, market analysis and marketing strategies, and preparation of loan submissions.

“I think we’re doing fairly well,” said Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.

“Surely to goodness, I don’t think anybody expected (the recovery) to take off and just do gangbusters. It’s probably never going to be like that again.

“We have found different ways of doing business or doing without, but I think there’s pent-up demand and I think we’ve already seen it with manufacturing expanding.”

Chris Cummiskey, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development, said the state has landed major projects in the past year, citing Baxter International bringing about 1,800 jobs to Covington and Caterpillar in the Athens area and its suppliers bringing about 3,000 jobs.

“And we have plenty of projects. That being said, the nation’s and Georgia’s unemployment rate is still too high. We are still hurting from the dependence we had on real estate and banking markets,” Cummiskey said. “But if you take those out of play, manufacturing is strong and stable right now.

“How I view the economy right now is we’re at a standstill. We have a lot of projects in the pipeline, but they’re running in place. They’re waiting to see what happens in the election. ... The projects may be influenced by who wins and what their policies are.

“I don’t think it’s the end of the world if candidate A or B wins,” Cummiskey said. “This happens every four years in every presidential election.”

Banking is one area that has taken a particular hit in the economic downturn, but Allison Kimbrell, vice president of marketing for Georgia’s Own Credit Union, said her industry is making a comeback.

“We’ve been doing well. What we’re seeing is our members are a bit cautious about spending money as the economy is rebounding,” Kimbrell said. “In 2011, we reached new milestones, so we’re seeing growth while other financial institutions have to cut back on lending and loans.”

Russell Vandiver, who announced his retirement last week as president of Oakwood-based Lanier Technical College, said he believes small business is the starting point for the economic resurgence.

“The economy gets going when you have small businesses that either are starting up or expanding,” he said.

“Those jobs are from the bottom and they grow up. And what’s happened is we’ve gone back to the days where there is so much regulation from the feds that it just chokes out any enthusiasm somebody has to start a business or expand it.

“And this medical insurance stuff — that’s just one more thing that those folks have to deal with,” said Vandiver, who served as Lanier Tech’s vice president for economic development for three decades before he became president.

“In this country, we’ve got to figure out what made us great was not these big, elaborate announcements of 4,000 jobs (at a single plant) — it’s the mom-and-pop operations where they’re making the money locally, putting their money back into the community and paying their taxes.”

Dunlap said she believes that whoever is elected president needs to “get something done about the budget, reducing the debt and reaching across the aisle to get some things to really make a difference.

“I guess we’ve been at it so long that we don’t have much faith that it will (happen). People are so discouraged with Washington in general.”

Simmons said: “I think our recovery is going to be two-pronged in its ultimate recovery. Certain numbers of jobs are going to have to be added or restored by larger businesses.

“But over a period of a number of years, the nature of some businesses has changed and I think opportunities will be presenting themselves for people to expand or even start small businesses to fill in gaps.”

He added: “I don’t think any one sector is going to do it. Some jobs over time will go away and be replaced by others. Processes will change and businesses will adapt.”

Sutton said Congress’ delaying action on key financial issues, such as taxes and the debt ceiling, is creating uncertainty for businesses and U.S. citizens.

But he is skeptical that anything, under current political conditions, can be accomplished at the federal level.

“Because of the election and the gotcha politics, both sides are afraid to come out and say what they’re really going to do because they’re afraid of somebody making political hay out of it,” Sutton said. “This has been a strange election year.”


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