By Abby Thornton
Green Forest Surveys in Buena Vista has been surveying public and private properties throughout Virginia for nearly 50 years. However, the man behind this enterprise works out of his home on Elm Avenue in Buena Vista.
The owner of Green Forest Surveys, Steven Douty, says that his is one of many businesses run out of homes in Buena Vista, although he says that many of these operations do not have licenses because of the accompanying fees.
“I guess it’s just me because I’m old school, but I think that if you’re going to reap the benefits of having a business you should also have to pay your dues,” Douty said.
Brian Brown, the city’s director of economic development, says that of the nearly 300 licensed business owners in Buena Vista, about 80 of them are service-based businesses like Douty’s. Brown doesn’t know exactly how many of them are operated out of people’s homes.
Brown says that while these home businesses provide much-needed services to the community, the city wants to encourage more of them to open storefronts.
“We’re always trying to encourage people to grow their business,” Brown said. “If there’s a way that we can get people to invest in a location downtown, that increases their walk-in-traffic, but it also adds something to the downtown economy. Everyone wins.”
Douty says that he does not feel the need to invest in a storefront, since he is not selling any products and he is the business’s only employee.
“People just sort of have to know where I am,” Douty said. “They come to me because they’re a friend of a friend, or I sat next to them in church, or they saw me on Yellow Pages.”
However Douty says that he can see how having a brick-and-mortar business has its perks.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Definitely having a business downtown would increase my ability to market my business,” Douty said. “The foot traffic that goes with owning a storefront would certainly have an impact.”[/pullquote]
Brown says that while there is no way to force people to go brick-and-mortar with their business, the city offering some incentives to do so.
“A few years ago we received a big grant from the USDA rural development agency to help start-ups get access to capital,” Brown said. “And we still have funding for that.”
The grant, which was worth $100,000, provides applicants with up to $15,000 to start their business.
Brown says that the city also started its own grant program in October to encourage businesses to improve the appearances of their buildings. The city will reimburse a business for up to 50 percent of the cost of improvement to its façade.
One downtown store, Urban Farm Girl, has already received approval for the grant, and will begin renovations this spring.
“We want to make the downtown look better, which will in turn attract more businesses and help the ones that are already there to thrive,” Brown said. “If you’re willing to invest in the appearance of your business, we’re willing to help you do that because it’s benefitting the city, as well.”
But Douty says that the city could do more for small businesses, especially those run out of people’s homes. He says that the city could help by facilitating meetings for owners of home-operated business.
“I know that a lot of people in my position struggle to market their business, especially in this technological age that we’re in,” Douty said. “I think we could all benefit from a meeting over coffee every once and a while so that we can bounce ideas off of each other.”
Brown says that there are only about 30 Buena Vista businesses in the Lexington/Rockbridge Chamber of Commerce. He says that the city wants to encourage more to join because doing so will improve business relations in the city.
“We’re trying to show a value of having business-to-business services and having that connector will help that,” Brown said.
To further encourage solidarity among its businesses, the city’s economic commission began holding monthly meetings last fall, which Brown says all licensed business owners are invited to.
The city also holds training sessions three times a month to help business owners with issues such as financing and taxes.
Brown says that all of these programs should motivate the city’s home-operated businesses to invest in storefront locations, while also bringing in new businesses.
“We’re showing ways that we as a community are not just a place where you can have a good time, but a place where you can come and do business, as well.”