Forum focuses on business issues

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By Tris DeRoma

A business forum hosted by Ken Nebel of the Village Arts gallery revealed some pretty harsh truths about being a small business owner in Los Alamos.

According to Nebel, the forum was for the public. Nebel said he put the forum together because he and other small business owners were always getting asked about how they’re doing financially and how others could start a business, too. 

“We have so many of our customers ask us ‘how we’re doing’ and how to get started in a business,” he said. So, he got some of his fellow entrepreneurs in the same room with the public, where the business owners answered questions and even learned a few things as well.

“I don’t know everything and I don’t pretend to, but it’s nice to hear that a lot of our challenges are the same,” Nebel said. “I think it’s also brought home to me how invested people are in their businesses.”

Overall theme of the evening was just how tough business owners have it here in the Atomic City, a town whose fate basically relies on the ups and downs of the Los Alamos National Laboratory as well as the contractor and subcontractors supported by the lab. 

Los Alamos business owners’ verdict: It’s a pretty tough gig. Owners at the meeting cited lack of parking, high rents and the logistical issues shoppers have to face every time they patronize local businesses. 

“People should realize how close some businesses are to not being here,” said Katie Alexander of Ruby K’s Bagel Café on Central Avenue. 

Alexander suggested one way the town could make things better is to encourage economic growth. 

“The only way you will get additional people to open businesses in the community is to somehow offer incentives to entrepreneurs,” she said. While she’s added additional services, such as catering, offering cakes and cupcakes as well as boxed lunches, and staying open later. Opening a retail operation is just too risky without some sort of financial incentive to do so, she said.

Karen Wray, who owns Karen Wray Fine Art Gallery and Studio also on Central Avenue, started her business one month before the stock market took it’s infamous dive in 2008, signaling the beginning of a nationwide economic downturn. 

“Running an art gallery in a recession is kind of a crazy thing to do,” she said at the forum. 

She believes the key to her survival was to keep coming up with ideas to keep her business interesting and fresh in the public eye. But, she said, in recent months that job has become harder since Otowi Station Bookstore closed its doors. When it closed, she said she lost a vital link with the public, as many of her customers came from the bookstore, who in turn, then wandered over from the Bradbury museum. 

But the general problem Wray sees is there’s no real downtown anymore, many of the spaces small business used to occupy have been taken up by office space. 

“When I first moved out here, we had a lot of small mom-and-pop retailers in town. We had Hobby Bench, several clothing stores, sports stores, all kinds of things. That was the one reason why I was willing to stay in Los Alamos, because there were things I could do here that I enjoyed,” she said. “But over the last 10 to 15 years, those spaces have been getting filled up with county offices, lab offices, and medical offices. Where did the retail go? Where’s our downtown?”

Cyndi Wells, who owns Pet Pangaea, a pet store at 158 Central Park Square, cited numerous  factors as to what’s ailing Los Alamos’ small business community.  

While she agreed with Wray about the problem of not having a real town center, she said the lack of things for people to do here as a big problem. Wells also pointed to employee turnover as another concern. When it takes about $10,000 to train an employee, she said keeping employees is a real issue. 

“I had a really great manager who worked for me for about one and a half years,” she said. “But, she said ‘I’m 28 and single and I can’t take this anymore.’ She now lives in Durango,” Wells said.

“Part of the problem is that we don’t have a lot of things here that people are looking for in a community…. We need things for the labor force that exists here as well.”

And, she said, because the business community seems to be dominated by lab contractors and office space, she ends up paying $6,733 a month in rent, plus utilities.  

“My competitors don’t pay this anywhere else,” she said. “The problem is that this is an old problem. I think it stems from this town getting set up by the government. I found a paper from the 1950’s where people were complaining even then to the Atomic Energy Commission that rents were too high.”

In the audience were some county council members, obviously interested in what the business people had to say. 

Councilor Pete Sheehey expressed interest in working on the rent issue. 

“Let’s see if there are some incentives we can offer the landlords to fix up the properties and offer a better rent. Maybe offer a property tax incentive to fix it up and offer a better rent,” Sheehey said. “That’s a carrot. On the other hand, I’m also willing to look at a stick. People are just sitting on property downtown. They aren’t renting it, not working to help the community.” 

Sheehey clarified by adding that some kind of financial penalties may be in order.

“I would like to see them make more money by putting that property to use and benefiting the community. Let’s look at both carrots and sticks to see what we can come up with. Let’s talk to both business owners and landlords and see what we can do,” he said. 

Councilor Fran Berting said it’s time to start a clearly defined retail business district.

“We need to do something that would create continuity, something that would lead people from Metzger’s all the way down to the Trinity site,” she said. 

One way that could be accomplished is through improving sidewalks and lighting “so people would know there’s something beyond the Bradbury Museum,” she said.

Berting also said they could probably help by distributing office space around town a little more effectively to break up the big blocks of office space that seem to have a monopoly on real estate. 

“Three or four offices may be okay, but perhaps a fifth and sixth may have to find another place in town,” she said.

There were also good points to be made about small business in Los Alamos: the camaraderie among business owners, teamwork when it comes to solving each other’s problems and, most of all, providing for the needs of residents who live 20 miles from the closest Wal-Mart. 

Wells recounted a story to the audience how a pet food she supplies really helped a customer’s pet through a health scare. For Wells’ efforts, she was rewarded with a turkey chicken casserole from the grateful customer. 

“That’s why we are here, because we want to help,” she said. “We want to be here for this community, but we definitively need help in figuring out how we can remain here for the community,” she said.