By Abbie Pedroni and Colleen Paxton

With Virginia’s gubernatorial election less than a week away, a lot of campaign rhetoric is focusing on small businesses and job creation.

Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli, the state’s current attorney general, has proposed the Small Business Advocate Plan. According to Cuccinelli’s website, the plan includes a website with guidance for potential small business owners. The plan also proposes a new legal definition of a small business.

Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate, hopes his campaign slogan “Putting Jobs First”  shows his commitment to higher employment. On McAuliffe’s website, the Business Incentive Program outlines a plan for tax credits to bring biotechnology businesses to Virginia, establishing a chief jobs creation officer, and investing in education for workforce development.

And Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis has a plan for job creation on his website that includes “open and competitive markets that reward value creation and operate under the rule of law.” Sarvis believes in reducing income and business taxes.

But small business owners in Lexington and Rockbridge County have their own ideas of how to promote small business growth.

“I think the whole area needs to think about how it wants to grow,” said Francesco “Frankie” Benincasa, owner and operator of Pronto Caffè & Gelateria on Main Street in Lexington . “To be stagnant as a population is essentially to shrink, economically speaking. Especially as people want more and more stuff.”

Benincasa said he wanted to start a business that was unique for Lexington, and he thinks other aspiring business owners should follow suit. He grew up in Lexington, and his parents own the Sheridan Livery Inn. Benincasa, who opened Pronto last year, said his restaurant experience kept him from facing any big setbacks.

It has been a slightly different story for Nathan Fountain, owner of  the proposed Mano Taquería on West Nelson Street and executive chef at brix°. Like Benincasa, Fountain wanted to bring a distinct flavor to downtown Lexington. He said the lack of diversity in restaurant options disturbed him.

But Fountain says he has faced a month-long setback trying to obtain a building permit. More recently, a building inspector found a mechanical problem that is preventing him from opening as well.

“It’s not exactly been the easiest time, certainly not nearly as easy as it was opening brix° four years ago,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s location, I don’t know if it’s concept, or if it’s a different business environment these days.”

Fountain compared himself to other businesses in downtown Lexington. He said the Robert E. Lee Hotel renovation has received tax breaks and help from the city, while he’s been on his own.

“I’ve gotten ‘buckeye’ from the whole situation,” he said. “It would be nice to have some help, some sort of something to show for it.”

The R.E. Lee project, on Main Street, will have a large economic impact on the community with its  combination of hotel rooms, apartments and a restaurant.

Still, Fountain is not alone in thinking more can be done to help businesses in Lexington and Rockbridge County. And at least two local business owners are looking to the gubernatorial candidates for ideas.

Cher McCoy, unit chairwoman for the Rockbridge Area Republican Committee,  owns Lexington Pet Care Center several miles west of town on Route 60. She has specialized in dog obedience and competitive training since 1980.

McCoy says Cuccinelli’s Small Business Advocate Plan would make it easier for small business owners to understand the process and procedures within different cities and counties in Virginia. She thinks the area could benefit from clearer guidance and information.

“That’s why there’s so many empty storefronts in downtown Lexington,” she said. “Cuccinelli is the man for the job.”

McCoy said she faced few problems in running her own business until last year, when having her home and business at the same address created red tape when she needed to renew her business license.

Marsha Heatwole, a partner at Artist in Cahoots in Lexington, said that downtown Lexington is in better shape than other areas, like downtown Waynesboro. While her business hasn’t been immune to economic cycles, Heatwole, a self-proclaimed “Blue Dog Democrat,” said the focus should be on the environment rather than economic growth.

But growth in the community is still a priority for some business owners. To fill empty storefronts locally, Benincasa said, the county should look into advocating population growth, and Lexington should focus its efforts on becoming a center for entertainment.

He shares the view of some business owners — there is a disconnect between the reality of small business and what the gubernatorial candidates are proposing. Benincasa says the candidates need a deeper understanding of what small business truly means.

“I guess it’s like a code,” he said. “If they say ‘business,’ not ‘small business,’ then that means big business, and there’s this idea that it’s evil. I’m definitely a small business. But is a hedge fund with five employees but a billion dollars in assets – is that a small business?

“I think it needs to be about growth as a whole,” he said. “ Big, medium, small.”

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