The month of May, now almost over, is/was Small Business Month in California, and May 5 through 11 was National Small Business Week.
These seem like some of those declarations similar to Mother’s Day when someone says “every day” should be Mother’s Day. So, we say every day around here should be small business day. More than anything else, it is the mix of our small businesses that define the physical look, civic energy, local employment, sense of community pride and future outlook of Sebastopol and west county.
Recent natural disasters have not been kind to parts of Sebastopol’s retail district and nearly all of the commercial areas along the lower Russian River of Rio Nido, Guerneville and Monte Rio. But as we mark Small Business Month, we see local storefronts, galleries and eateries re-opening, one by one. This month’s block party at The Barlow was a sunny delight of roaming shoppers, families with strollers and some out-of-town visitors. A new downtown Sebastopol event, Arts+Beats+Eats, has been launched by the Sebastopol Downtown Association to boost local shopping activity with free music, in-store specials, extended Friday hours and local merchant cooperation. That sounds like a great way to make every week Small Business Week.
What don’t Sebastopol’s small businesses offer? (We’re sure a few skeptics can tell us.) But we have an independent movie house, a country feed store, a co-op grocery store (Community Market), dispensaries, book stores, two credit unions, community bank, more independent grocery stores, wellness centers, spas, a hardware center, ethnic dining, a live performance theater and eclectic, fun, funky, authentic, hand-crafted, ethical and affordable retail. Graton and Occidental are arts and craft meccas with enjoyable dining, and Guerneville and the river area accommodate all us locals as if we were specially invited guests visiting the redwoods, coast or river.
There are lots of small business enterprises here to celebrate. And we must not take them for granted. Sebastopol and the many diverse west county markets and crossroads have such a rich mix of local businesses that, unlike many communities of a similar size, there is a local newspaper, Sonoma West Times & News, that continues to publish local news and advertising. This will be the 130th year of publishing for Sonoma West, dating to 1889 and the first issues of The Sebastopol Times. The newspaper is just one of many essential community institutions supported by local businesses.
All locally owned businesses working more in unison on attractions like block parties, downtown music, Peacetown concerts and Rockin’ on the River summer Thursdays is a winning formula for the overall increased economic vitality still needed following our floods and wildfires.
Small business ownership has many challenges. Right now hiring workers and retaining staff is a problem because of low unemployment and high housing costs. Some commercial rents and other business costs keep increasing each year. But the biggest challenges are the least visible when you look up and down our Main streets. What we don’t see is how many of us are not shopping here. We don’t know how many local shopping dollars now get gobbled up by Amazon and other online companies. But regional and national figures suggest that local economies like west county’s are losing 20% or more each year to the convenience of 24/7 Amazon-like “click and ship” retailing.
Our local businesses and markets must heed the lessons we see nearby where Santa Rosa has lost its Sears, Toys R Us and other stores. Tens of thousands of America’s conventional retail stores are closing, from small independents to larger anchor stores.
We need more Arts+Beats+Eats-type events, co-op promotions and community pride to preserve our small businesses. Our local small businesses really are the heartbeat of our community.