Open For Business: Starting Small | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Open For Business: Starting Small

Photo by Kristen Breneman

Jacqueline Wells dreams of making films. That's why she's sitting in an office in an old shopping mall on Ellis Avenue, flanked by two portable fans compensating for the office's weak air conditioning.

A petite, unfailingly polite woman in her 30s, Wells is an intern with the Jackson Business Accelerator Collaborative, a project of Jackson-based New Horizon Ministries. The JBAC, which launched officially last month, aims to promote entrepreneurship and help existing small businesses grow by connecting them. As an intern, Wells is learning the basics of writing a business plan, which she will then convey to the Business Accelerator's clients, business owners who lack the formal or technical training to think strategically about their enterprises.

A native and resident of Richland, Wells spent 10 years working for the Jackson Police Department as a traffic violations clerk. She took classes part-time at Mississippi College but grew tired of commuting and dividing her focus. She enrolled at Jackson State University, and she will graduate in December with a public relations bachelor's degree.

Today, she is discussing her ambitions with Michael Harris and Andrea Morris, the JBAC's director and assistant director. Wells wants to open a film production company, but she also harbors hopes of developing a film education program for young people. The thought of starting a production company is daunting, though.

"Do you think I should just launch right into that" Wells asks Harris. "Or should I start out small, like I was thinking about with the youth, and work towards that"

Harris, tall and avuncular, with a shaved head and glasses, is leaning back in his chair. First, pretending to scold, he tells her she should complete the draft business plan that the interns have as an assignment.

"We can't give you the answer, nor do you want us to give you the answer," Harris continues. "We have to build the structure of your business, and once you've built the structure … then you weigh it, and you'll know which one you want to go (with). You either have the facts on one hand, or your heart will tell you which way to go on the other."

Morris, who worked at Hope Community Credit Union as a program officer for 16 years before joining New Horizon, chimes in: "The best advice I could give to any potential business owner is to know your industry. Particularly if you're going to ask for funding—be it from banks, credit unions, angel investors—you have to know your industry. People who don't know their industry don't know how to prepare for the pitfalls." Wells should see how companies outside of Jackson, or even outside the state, work, she says.
Everywhere and Nowhere

As Harris explains, resources for small businesses in Jackson are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. In fact, it's the very abundance and diversity of resources that makes something like the JBAC necessary.

Organizations like the Mississippi Small Business Development Center offer counseling and training to budding entrepreneurs, but the sheer number of people interested means that its reach doesn't extend far enough. The center, which is a project of the federal Small Business Association, covers the five-county Jackson metro area with only a handful of counselors. Other state and local agencies, like the Mississippi Development Authority and the Hinds County Economic Development District, deal mostly (or exclusively) with larger companies and projects.

Harris wants the Business Accelerator to support the work of these existing groups by connecting even more local entrepreneurs to them, using a public relations blitz and New Horizon's organizational prowess. He wants to tap resources like SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, which have been underused in the city. SCORE, another project of the Small Business Administration, provides mentoring to aspiring business owners from more than 12,000 experienced executives or owners. Jackson has not had a local SCORE office for in-person counseling since 2002, but potential entrepreneurs can still receive advice via telephone and online chats. All they need is a business plan, which the JBAC can help them draft.

Harris, who has worked as an independent business consultant and with New Horizon's youth programs, sees JBAC's work as empowerment.

"What I tell folks is, ‘If you didn't have to work for a living and you didn't have to do anything for the money, what would you do'" Harris says. "And then you build your business around that, and you figure out how to make money. That's how I ended up doing what I'm doing. This is business consulting, and when I asked myself what would I do if I didn't have to work for a living, I said I would work with youth. At this point, I'm not working with a whole lot of youth, but it's still part of this business plan, and I still get to do what I want to do. I get to plan every day to do exactly what I want to do."

Lessons Learned
While countless potential business ventures never survive the planning process, the hard work of actually opening the doors is also fraught with complications and pitfalls. People who have successfully opened businesses in Jackson say the process could be easier.

Jim and Mimi Burwell have operated restaurants in the city since 1978, but opening a new one has not gotten much easier. When the couple decided last year to open Mimi's Family and Friends, a diner in the Fondren neighborhood, it took four weeks of paperwork and visits to various agencies before the Burwells could begin renovations on their property. Before opening, an aspiring restaurant owner must file paperwork or otherwise interact with the state Health Department, the Secretary of State's office, the state Tax Commission and the city's Fire, Signs and Permitting departments.

"It seems like of all the dealings I had downtown, if you have the right person in charge, I could've dealt with one person for everything," Jim Burwell said. "It's like they needed an advocate for small businesses, where you have one person, and they can take care of everything you need."

In fact, the city now has a person for that very purpose. Vic Sexton joined Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr.'s administration in November 2009 as the city's small business liaison. Sexton may have been hired too late to help the Burwells, and Johnson acknowledges that the former banker is still learning the ropes of city government. In addition to fulfilling a campaign promise, Sexton represents the city's commitment to its small businesses, Johnson says. It's a new position, borne of a lesson Johnson learned from his previous administrations.

"Small businesses need technical assistance from the government," Johnson said. "I think that's a legitimate role. Sometimes they need help in working through the maze of government."

Sexton's primary duties are to educate small business owners about the city's two business-grant programs and to function as the city's point person for communicating with businesses—the kind of position Jim Burwell described.

"That's his job: to make sure that once that business first contacts him, that person will not have to go to other points of government to find out information," Johnson said. "Now, he obviously would not issue a license or a permit, but he'd be able to tell them where to go and the sequence."

The city is also looking into speeding up the issuance of permits and licenses as part of a general drive for efficiency, Johnson added. The mayor wants to consolidate some information and services, like permit applications and zoning ordinances, on the city's website.

"I can appreciate the frustration that people have and the time that it takes to get their response attended to," Johnson said. "We're working to try to reduce that time."

Johnson was dogged throughout his first two terms for being unresponsive to the city's business community. Fondren attorney Ron Aldridge says that Johnson's current administration has improved significantly on that problem. Aldridge, who serves as Mississippi state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said that city officials have increased their focus on organizing and developing existing businesses.

"It was more business had to go to them (for help)," Aldridge said. "Now they're coming to us, saying, ‘How can we be more visible in the business community How can we assist you from that standpoint'"

Aldridge praised Johnson's quick decision to resurface major arterial streets in the city like Woodrow Wilson Avenue, which helps attract and retain visitors, he said. The Jackson Police Department has also shown a renewed interest in protecting businesses, with special burglary-suppression operations during major shopping days, Aldridge said.

The city is still at a competitive disadvantage with surrounding suburbs when it comes to property taxes, which can be twice as high in Jackson as in Rankin and Madison counties. Aldridge believes the city could demonstrate its good faith to business owners by trying to cap property tax increases due to reappraisal.

"It's not so much against the city; I think it's something that's got to be done at the state level, to restrict that kind of an increase at one time," Aldridge said. "But the city has to be sensitive to that. You can lose, real quickly, a financial base of your businesses if you have a 40 to 50 percent jump in your tax on property in one year."

As Jackson Chamber of Commerce Chairman Jonathan Lee sees it, the city's higher property taxes represent Jackson's place as the state's premier business center.

"Like it or not, Jackson is the capital city, and it is the center of commerce," Lee said. "With that privilege, there is a cost associated with it, and we pay that in the form of taxes."

Beyond the Business Plan
In some cases, the city's interactions with small businesses are already speedy. The City Council awarded Scott Harrison's company, Harrison Manufacturing, a $14,500 storefront improvement grant last week, less than a month after Harrison submitted his application and far earlier than he expected.

Harrison, whose company supplies molded plastic parts like cup holders for the Canton Nissan plant, will use the money to replace glass doors on his Mayes Street facility that were recently damaged by vandals and to improve the building's façade.

Another recent grantee, Donald Warren Group, an accounting firm, is receiving funds for both storefront improvement and equipment purchases. The firm, which has two employees, will use the equipment funds to buy computers, printers and a fax machine, manager Cedric Abston said. The storefront improvement grant will go to purchasing a permanent sign to replace the banner currently on the business' Clinton Boulevard building.

The quick turnaround on grants is indicative of the city's commitment to the two programs. The grant funds come from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and expire at the end of the fiscal year. Any unused funds will count against the city's allocation for next year, so Sexton and the city have an incentive to award as much as possible.

"As far as we know, we're the only city in the state that offers those kind of incentives to small business," Johnson said.

The grants are especially useful to fledgling small businesses, because acquiring outside financing becomes extremely difficult for any business owner without much experience, especially in the current economy. Despite their 30 years of experience, the Burwells still had difficulty obtaining a loan to open Mimi's, as bankers are especially wary of lending to restaurants.

"It's virtually impossible (to get a loan)," Jim Burwell said. "We have a great relationship with our banker. I went to him on (Mimi's) behalf at the beginning of the process, and he said, ‘Come back and see me after you have a track record, and we can try the SBA.' In other words, once you've shown you have the profitability. Fortunately because of our relationship with him, he was able to lend us some money."

Attorney Brad Reeves is new to the restaurant business, having bought Brent's Drugs last summer, but he was able to secure a no-interest loan thanks to the federal stimulus package. Drugstore chain CVS bought the pharmacy operation, and Reeves planned to expand the venerable Fondren soda fountain portion of the business. He found himself confronted with multiplying costs, however, when city fire inspectors refused to approve the old grill that Brent's had been using for decades before Reeves took over. Because a new grill—and its accompanying hood—wouldn't fit in the old one's place, Reeves had to construct a new kitchen behind the store's old pharmacy counter.

Reeves experienced frustrations with city departments, too. He submitted three different sets of plans to the city's building permits department before they were satisfied. He was aggravated by what he considered the vague advice he received from city employees, and like Jim Burwell, he wished for a city employee with Sexton's job description.

"They could probably do a little better job of caressing the people we have and say, ‘Hey we're glad you're doing a renovation,'" Reeves said. "Maybe there's just a liaison over there who can call and say: ‘I understand you turned in a permit application. Here's what you need to do, and call us back if you have any questions.'"

Reeves admits that he could have been "a little more aggressive" in dealing with the city, but he still wishes city representatives had reached out more to him: "I've told a few people that if the mayor's office were to ask me, ‘What could (we) do better' (I'd say) that people there need to be begging you—‘We're glad you're staying in Jackson. We're glad you're not going to Flowood or Madison. What can we do to help you out'"

Making Friends
As many small business owners do, Reeves found help in the private associations and organizations that multiply the relatively minor clout of individual businesses into more powerful forces.

The Fondren Association of Businesses recruited him to serve on its board, and he currently serves as chairman of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership's Young Professionals Alliance. Reeves also praises the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau, which featured Brent's in advertising that it had purchased in local publications.

Mimi's also benefitted from a JCVB advertisement and is now soliciting help from the Chamber Partnership, Jim Burwell says. In addition, the Burwells have reached out to developer Mike Peters, who owns the Fondren Corner and Fondren Place buildings, but not the former gas station where Mimi's is located.

"If we have an issue with the city, he's usually the cheerleader to go through," Mimi Burwell said. "They listen to him, because he is very monetarily involved and has a lot going on over here. They tend to listen more to somebody that has that kind of pull than they do the average citizen. … He helps us because it's the area that he's invested in, and he wants everyone to do well."

Like the Burwells, Tonyatta Hairston has learned the value of reaching out to those better connected than herself. Hairston occupied Mimi's North State Street building before the Burwells, but she has since moved her optometry practice, Envision Eyecare, to Belhaven. Before celebrating her grand opening, she contacted the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, which organized a ribbon-cutting ceremony Aug. 28 of last year.

"There were probably 200 people here for my grand opening because of my involvement with the Chamber and several patients that are involved with the Chamber that encouraged other people to come," Hairston said. "I'd definitely say that was one of the most beneficial things I could've done."

Renovations on her new location were difficult, Hairston said, but that was because of issues with her contractor rather than with the city bureaucracy. The city's permitting process was "relatively seamless," she said, and department employees were always quick to respond.

Hairston also credits an equipment grant from the city two years ago with helping her acquire updated technology, which, in turn, impresses visitors and helps attract patients.

"Being a small business owner, you're looking for any avenue of capital or the ability to purchase equipment to make your business stand out more," Hairston said.

Jonathan Lee credits the mayor with improving the city's image among small business owners.

"They are constantly talking about this open-door policy where, if there are issues, the mayor and his staff are available," Lee said. "Personally, I've had members of his staff reach out unsolicited to see what they can do to make it easier to do business in town."

Lee serves as CEO of his own small business, Mississippi Products, which stores and distributes medical and restaurant supplies. Still, as he sees it, the city's most meaningful interactions with small business aren't happening on the level of individual business owners.

"I think you'll find that most small businesses operate outside of government," Lee said. "We file our sales taxes, and we pay our sign ordinance where applicable, but in terms of having much interface with the city, it's very little, unless of course there's an issue relating to crime or something along those lines."

Jackson's openness to small businesses is set to improve significantly with the introduction of Johnson's much-vaunted 3-1-1 system, a citizen-accessible database that will track the city's progress resolving complaints, filling work orders and performing routine maintenance, among other services. The system will be installed within the next year, Johnson said. Some logistical issues, like the physical location for a new city call center, are still pending, though.

Johnson also has plans to address business owners' concerns about crime. The Jackson Police Department already hosts a Citizens Police Academy, which offers residents a mock-JPD training regimen and introduces them to the department's organization and operation.

"We've been talking about setting up a similar academy for businesses, where we could introduce them to the police here in the city of Jackson and also where they could establish relationships with the police department," Johnson said.

Connecting and Moving Forward
The JBAC was temporarily just the Jackson Business Accelerator, but Harris and New Horizon decided to add "Collaborative" to emphasize the organization's role as a connector. Harris and Morris know that they can't give Wells more directed advice because they're unfamiliar with the film industry. What they can do, though, is help her find a more specialized mentor.

"The Accelerator's not about trying to do it all here, because we can't do it all here," Harris said. "It's really about bringing in the resources and the connections that folks need to move their businesses forward."

To read more about Jackson's growing business scene, check out the JFP's Business blog and spread the love!

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