CHATHAM — State officials came to town last week to hear from small business owners about what the commonwealth can do to encourage job creation and business growth. What they heard was pretty clear: when it comes to government intervention, less is more.
The May 5 session at the community center was led by Carolyn Kirk, deputy secretary of housing and economic development, with help from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. It was the second in a series of 10 listening sessions being held around the state in May, which is Small Business Month.
“I was a mayor for seven years, and I share your sentiment: just get out of the way,” Kirk said. Statewide, small businesses are a large part of the economy, and on Cape Cod, 91 percent of companies have 19 or fewer employees.
The participants in the meeting broke into focus groups to tackle individual topics, including the challenges small businesses have in obtaining capital. Some group members suggested that the state consider a “one-stop shop” where businesses can get help raising startup funds or money for expansion, along with help with state regulations. Some capital is available for small businesses, but they typically need detailed business plans and financial statements, which are beyond the expertise of some entrepreneurs.
Jay Coburn of the Community Development Partnership said his organization offers many of these services, with the support of state grants designed to help small businesses. The organization's grant funding dropped by more than half in fiscal 2017, he noted. “At the CDP, we've got money to lend,” he said. “What we need are the staff people on the ground who can support small business owners.” That requires investment by the state, he said.
Others at the meeting said that building a sustainable workforce often means helping employees find appropriate housing , affordable child care and transportation.
State Sen. Julian Cyr, D., Cape and Islands, said he grew up helping in his family's restaurant business and knows that seasonal businesses have particular needs, though workforce development is a challenge for all local small businesses.
“Housing is just a huge, huge challenge,” he said.
At the group discussing the maritime economy, several speakers described a problem of locally harvested fish or shellfish being trucked to market off-Cape, depriving many local entrepreneurs of the chance to charge retail prices for their goods. Nancy Civetta of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance said that food products are heavily regulated at all points of the supply chain.
“It's complicated because it's federal, state and town [regulations] and a lot of them are made for larger businesses.” One shellfisherman who said he would like to sell his catch at a local farmer's market said doing so would require a $50,000 investment in equipment in order to meet the rules. Another pointed out that the Cape needs its own cold storage and processing center.
Harwich farmer Barry Viprino suggested that some kind of partnership with farmers might be in order. He said that to have a meat processing license, he needs to have two freezers, though they are seldom in use.
Reducing the distance food travels to market not only yields fresher food, but puts more money in the pockets of local farmers and fishermen, some argued.
Coburn said a local brewery recently had to move production of its most popular beer to Rhode Island because the cost of producing it locally was too high, in part because of the lack of wastewater infrastructure.