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Small Town, Small Businesses, and Being Proactive

Small businesses on Main Street are always challenged by the economy.  Small businesses are a bit quieter then they were a few years ago and now the challenge for small-town business leaders is to be creatively proactive. However, our capacity to be proactive, as shown in this story, is all too often restricted by the business we’re in. While sustaining a business in a small town is part of an idealized American dream, increasingly it is becoming a pursuit demanding extraordinary proactive efforts.


Saugerties NY, 90 miles from NYC, is about as pleasant as breakfast in bed. The quaint downtown area houses the standard variety of coffee, bike, and book shops and hides them safely from the Wal-Marts and K-Marts of suburban America.

Years ago downtown USA was forced to duke it out with malls and ‘mega-shopping centers’. Sadly, downtown areas lost and were relegated to selling niche products and services to an increasingly price-conscience consumer.

The small downtown businesses that survived the explosion of Wal-Marts and their ilk have enjoyed a steady stream of business for the past 6 years due to a booming economy. Now, the good times have checked out and left small-town business owners in a pinch that’s forcing them to get creative or get out.

John has been the part-owner of English Gardens, a beautiful antique and custom picture framing store in downtown Saugerties NY, for over 15 years. He reports, “For the past 5 to 10 years every store was full. ‘For Rent’ signs were in windows for only 5 minutes. Now it’s months.” John, like many small business owners in Saugerties, must survive while America’s economy shakes.

Ads taken out in the local downtown business brochure, published by the Saugerties’ Business Association, and the local paper have proved to be of little use for John because “locals aren’t coming in….Most of the [phone] numbers I get are from 518 or 212 [Manhattan] area codes.”

Weekenders and seasonal residents drive John’s framing business while locals will oftentimes stumble into his store and report, ” ‘We live just up the street and we’ve never been here or even seen this place!'”

The lack of local support and the increase in thrifty tourists and part-time residents has led small business owners in Saugerties to lament, like John, “It’s the slowest it’s ever been.”

John says it’s increasingly hard to find hope, citing the fact that his business only helps pay for 20 percent of his living expenses: “I’m not the only store owner down here who has to rely on other sources of income…At one point it was possible…not now.”

However, John can do little to advertise and sell his goods since he is operating a niche business in a small town. His unique location forces him to tend shop for an increasingly slower stream of customers and he can’t find the time or the resources to advertise out-of-town.

John hopes that he can ride out the recession by cutting business costs and operating as efficiently as possible. John and his business partner have the determination and business savvy to do just that and won’t be putting up an “out of business” sign up anytime soon.


Across the street from English Gardens sits one of Saugerties’ newer downtown businesses, Michael Nelson’s Photography Gallery and Studio. The studio sells museum-quality photographs while hosting and exhibiting various artists and art shows. Michael says that since the economy is so bleak his business “would never be able to rely on the local economy…It would be too hard.”

Michael, a successful freelance photographer for over 35 years, quickly realized that his business model needed to be diversified quickly in order to survive in Saugerties’ downtown area. Michael says that he tries “to get my fingers into as many pies as possible” so he can not only attract revenue but develop skills as the economy shrinks.

His business philosophy is proving advantageous. Photographers in NYC and other cities are unfortunately hemmed into selling a niche service and can’t afford to develop new skills since they have to fight constantly for evaporating business. Michael doesn’t envy his counterparts in bigger cities, “They are trapped. Here [in Saugerties] you are more desperate for work,” which helps him to think outside of the box and drum up unique business ideas.

The recent economic downturn hasn’t scared Michael–instead it has given him time to expand his artistic offerings to include video interviewing, editing, photography services, selling prints, and heading up photography workshops in the community. Michael has even created his own website,, which collects and showcases interviews from various full-time artists. Michael’s new services are offered to clients all across New York and throughout the country–he is not limiting his potential client base.

Michael feels that “when we’re too busy, we can’t plan; we can’t develop quickly.” He goes on to note that trying times are about “starting new projects” and not fretting.

However, Michael isn’t exactly all blue skies, “I’m experienced, not an optimist.” The point here is that although his business is going through an economic slump, his experience has taught him that “recessions aren’t forever.” The best thing to do in during a downturn is to put your head down and develop new ideas, skills, and identify new streams of business.


The nature of Michael’s work and his area of expertise gives him many creative avenues to explore. However, for small business owners focused on specialized retail sales, like English Gardens, it’s harder to effect change on an already tight budget.

Looking at Michael’s photo studio and John’s antique store we’re confronted with two different business models that are forced to make challenging calls in the face of a shrinking economy. Michael has chosen to proactively seek out new business by adding to his skill set whereas John is forced to hunker down and think of creative ways to save and sell. However, both owners have the instinctive confidence to support their store and services.

The businesses we’ve looked at are struggling to stay open but their confidence keeps them afloat, hopeful, and in the black. By taking confidence in your products, services, and survival skills, it is possible to become a successful, competent, business owner and leader.

As the economy shrinks and grows, small business owners and leaders can’t do anything to control the external situation. Yet, smart business owners and leaders won’t let economic dips and dramatic rises let them lose focus on what’s most important: the products and services being offered. Such sharp vision will supply business owners with confidence that isn’t be based on the mood of the Federal Reserve Chairman.



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