HARWICH — A lot needs to be done on the Cape to improve the retail climate for local businesses. That message was conveyed to the Senate Task Force on Strengthening Local Retail during a visit to town on Monday.
The task force came to see what steps government can take to improve the economic climate for small businesses, many of which face a small window during the summer months to show a profit. Those that don't realize a profit often display a “for rent” sign in the window come fall.
“All retail is local and the Cape has some particular issues,” task force chairman Senator Michael Rodrigues, D-Westport, said. “The Cape has particular issues and we hope we can address them here on the Cape and in the rest of Massachusetts.”
The task force, which also met in Hyannis, will be holding similar meetings with small business owners in the Merrimack Valley and Berkshire County as they seek to assess issues facing small businesses across the state.
The forum held at the Land Ho! in Harwich Port was hosted by task force member and Cape and Islands Senator Julian Cyr, a Truro Democrat, and the Harwich Chamber of Commerce. Cyr told the gathering of about 30 representatives of local chambers that the task force wants to hear from them about the challenges they face.
The loudest message was the need to develop an understanding of the importance of shopping locally. The need for a sound workforce and the ability to house those workers was also a clear message sent to the task force. Given the importance of the businesses to attract tourist, it was recommended a more regional retail network be developed instead of divisions by village or town. Health care and utility costs were also issues raised by business owners.
Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce CEO Wendy Northcross said $180 million was spent in retail establishments on Cape Cod last year, generating significant tax revenue for the state. The downside, she added, is the difficulty in finding enough people to work and housing people brought in to fill jobs.
Northcross cited a program the chamber is working on to bring evacuees from Puerto Rico into the state to fill jobs. “The key to all of this is housing,” she said.
Rick Morris of RPM Carpets in East Harwich said the cost of health insurance for employees and the difficulty finding full-time employees were major problems he is facing. He said he employs mothers who can only work the hours their children are in school. He urged the task force to bring back the sales tax exemption weekend, which was a success for his business. He also said the state needs to address the cost of health care for employees.
Beth Marcus of Cape Cod Beer was one of many business owners who spoke about the need for housing workers, pointing out 25 percent of her employees live in Plymouth. She said 90 percent of what is talked about is the need for housing. The change in college schedules with students getting out later and going back earlier cuts short their availability to work in the summer.
Cape Cod Chronicle Sales Manager Debra DeCosta said many of the shops on the Cape are micro- businesses, more so than small businesses, with one and two employees. They have a small window of time to make money over the summer months and deserve a tax break, she said, adding that it is very difficult for local businesses to compete against online stores like Amazon.
Melinda Gallant of Sandwich, a member of the board of directors of the Cape Cod Chamber, said many retail businesses are insular, identifying only in their villages and town. She said for many years she has tried to start a wider retail group, but it didn't go any where because of self-interest and an unwillingness of larger stores to participate.
“We're a region, but not run like a region,” Gallant said.
Retailers Association of Massachusetts President John Hurst said the group has 400 members on the Cape and Islands, 10 percent of its total membership. That shows the importance of small business on the Cape and Islands, he said, urging the task force to develop programs that coordinate small business promotions and messages across the state. One suggestion he had for was development of smartphone apps small businesses can embrace.
Calista Remondino of Sativa and Solis in Harwich Port said an app was developed in Washington state with which people gained points and got rewards for shopping local.
Noelle Pina, executive director of the Orleans Chamber of Commerce, said small businesses have significant financial burdens and she urged the legislators not to add to that through minimum wage increases and higher costs for shipping of goods.
Sassy Richardson-Roche, president of the Orleans Chamber of Commerce, emphasized the importance of community support for local businesses, not just residents but businesses working with other businesses. She said her nursery business, The Farm, works well with others in town, such as Snow's and Agway. But she also said it is important for people to “buy local, shop on the Cape.”
“What matters is the more dollars spent in the local community, the more dollars stay in the community,” said Amanda Converse of Shift boutique in Hyannis. “Our competition is from online Amazon and the richest man in the world. Spending dollars here is extremely important.”
“Retail is important to the local economy,” said Teresa Martens, owner of Snow Goose. “If we don't have small, independent stores it will impact tourism.”
There were a number of other issues discussed, including establishing a training wage for younger workers to gain experience. The cost of energy on Cape Cod is a drawback to small businesses; Harwich Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cyndi Williams pointed out energy costs here are the highest in the country.
Cyr said the health of small businesses on the Cape is driven by people wanting to shop locally. He agreed many of the shops here are micro-businesses with one and two workers, and concurred that lack of workers and workforce housing is a major issue. There is also a need to assist businesses because of the short season and high energy costs, he said.
“It was very successful to get all these people in the room and have the task force hear what the challenges are these many family businesses face,” Williams said. “It was good to have them here to see what it is like on a rainy day in January on Cape Cod and to see how seasonal things are here when people aren't going out shopping.”