Wicker Business Campus offices helpful for new small businesses

Feb. 23, 2013 @ 07:12 PM

Small businesses haven't recovered from the recession nearly as well as larger businesses have, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses. The group also found that small business owners consider government regulation — not falling consumer demand — their biggest obstacle to success.

In Sanford, though, at least one group is doing all it can to help small businesses flourish by removing many of the costs, headaches and obstacles unrelated to the business itself that come with trying to set up shop.

The Small Business Center on Central Carolina Community College's W.B. Wicker Business Campus offers nine offices — plus a conference room and break room — for people or groups to rent out if they don't want to plunge headfirst into committing to a large space elsewhere in town.

With flexible contracts that can be monthly, yearly or multi-year, the offices operated by Brick Capital Community Development Corporation come with furniture and a communal phone, fax machine, refrigerator, internet and utilities all included. And at a yearly rate of between $350 and $485 per month, said Brick Capital Executive Director Kate Rumely, they can serve as a great starting point for aspiring business owners.

Take Jeanine Morton, for example. Morton attended undergraduate and graduate school in Washington, D.C., studying to be a speech therapist, before moving to Sanford to be close to family. She worked for a larger company for a while before deciding — in 2008, at the height of the recession — that she wanted to be her own boss. So she began working out of her house, which lasted a mere six months. She heard about the Small Business Center and decided it might be worth a shot for her company, Theraplay, which uses toys and social interactions in addition to therapy to help children overcome speech or developmental disabilities.

Morton, who's now 34, rented an office in 2009 but found her list of patients expanding so rapidly that she rented out a second one, which she also outgrew. Imbued with confidence and growing clientèle, she struck out on her own in 2010, buying a storefront on Chatham Street and jumping from 600 to 2,000 square feet. But without the initial help from Brick Capital and its entrepreneurial incubator, Morton said, she would have been unsuccessful, massively in debt or both.

"I probably would've been tempted to take out a loan and jump into a big space I wouldn't have been able to handle," she said, explaining that especially with her less-than-stellar credit at the time: "I really don't know that I would've made it."

Morton said she feels good about the future of her business, but that makes her an outlier. Fueled by the fiscal cliff debate and, to a lesser extent, the Affordable Care Act, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses, small business owners around the country are simply not optimistic.

Said the group's chief economist, Bill Dunkelberg, in a written statement: "If small businesses were publicly traded companies, the stock market would be in shambles."

The study, conducted in January and released this month, found a 30 percent decrease from the December in the number of small business owners who believe the economy will be better in six months — the fourth-worst attitude the study has recorded since it began in 1975.

Morton said her business wasn't hit as hard by the recession as others since it's a medical one, but she did agree that regulations — especially ones regarding both government and private insurance — are far and away the biggest threat to her success.

"I failed miserably at that, having to figure out billing, Medicare and those kinds of things," she said of when she was first taking clients. And while she was learning the ins and outs of insurance and other paperwork, she said, it was nice to not have to worry about paying utilities, buying furniture and other things that come with starting a business. Plus, it was good being near other people in similar situations.

"Just being a small business owner, sometimes you feel isolated," she said. "So it was nice to have that automatic social atmosphere."

On a recent trip to the offices with Rumely, though, the offices were deserted. Six of the nine are vacant, and nobody was in the three occupied ones Thursday afternoon. Rumely said some haven't been on the market since they had to be cleaned and painted — every office was occupied in December, she explained, but the tenants have moved on, successfully or otherwise. Also, she said, the economy plays a big, negative role.

"I'm sure the economy isn't what it was for anybody," she said. "People are more afraid of starting a business than in the early 2000s."

The center opened in 2006 and since then, she said, there's been a pretty good amount of success, albeit a slight downturn after the recession. Many clients have gone on to bigger and better things, but there was also one man who just disappeared one day, leaving all of his things behind. There have also been pregnancies that put plans on hold, as well as changes of heart. But whatever the case, Rumely said, these offices give more leeway than a traditional rental space in case such a situation does come up.

Morton agreed whole-heartedly.

"I'm grateful for that, that you can start small and build your dream," she said.