Small businesses make up close to 80% of the membership of the Rome Floyd Chamber.
Its president, Jeanne Krueger, said that’s all the more significant because the chamber generally considers small businesses as companies with less than 100 employees. The Small Business Administration’s cap is often as high as 500 — and can even hit 1,500 employees, depending on the type of company.
The chamber celebrated National Small Business Week this week to recognize the important contributions of entrepreneurs and small business owners.
“When we see small businesses adding employees, that’s job growth,” Krueger said.
She said small businesses help to make a community unique. When small businesses are growing and doing well, that creates consumers for the service sector, doctors, dentists, accountants and contributes to the ripple of cash through the local economy.
“The dollars that stay right in the community help the school systems, help local nonprofits. (Small businesses are) what make the community vibrant,” Krueger said.
The past six months, with the coronavirus outbreak, have been extremely challenging for them.
Evie McNiece owns Accounting Solutions Plus and chairs the chamber’s Small Business Action Council. She said the lack of foot traffic has been one of the biggest issues expressed by many of the chamber’s small businesses.
“Especially at the very beginning, people were very cautious,” McNiece said. “A lot of these businesses had to start thinking outside of the box.”
McNiece said she was amazed at the ways different businesses reacted during the outset of the COVID-19 crisis. She pointed to Mimi Weed and Melanie Morris at Mel and Mimi’s Boutique on East Eighth Street. They filmed daily fashion shows inside their shop and put them on Facebook to maintain front-of-mind contact with their customers.
Mimi Weed said the fashion shows not only helped maintain contact with regular clients, they resulted in many new people being exposed to the business who had not been in the boutique previously.
“We had just received a house full of spring merchandise and we just decided to do this,” Weed said. “It created something bigger than we expected. To this day, we still have people say they enjoyed it. It really helped getting merchandise to people to try or purchase.”
Krueger said she’s seen many local small businesses doing what they do best: think outside the box.
“Their resiliency, their ability to adapt and pivot to make their model a little bit different have resulted in successes and they may continue with the new model going forward,” she said.
The chamber president believes the COVID-19 pandemic may have helped speed up the integration of digital resources for many small business owners. But any time you talk about the digital economy, it can get touchy for some merchants.
Elaine Abercrombie at Greene’s Jewelers is the immediate past chairman of the chamber board and one of the head cheerleaders for the chamber. But e-commerce is one of the greatest challenges her small business faces.
“Instead of coming in the store, people are shopping and buying online and that’s something we fight a lot,” Abercrombie said. “It seems that now people are not afraid of buying something from a stranger, but they are afraid to come in and see people they know.”
The Rome Business RadioX podcast, produced by Roger Manis in studios at the Rome News-Tribune, is another partnership the chamber has taken on to shine a social media spotlight on small businesses.
Rip Montgomery owns Antiques on the Square and The Peddler, a couple of small businesses in Cave Spring. He said that keeping two small businesses going in a small community has been a challenge.
“The good thing is, people are wanting to get out and they are picking small towns to come to,” Montgomery said. “Fortunately, on the weekends we have had good traffic.”
He said that weekend traffic alone has been enough to sustain his business.
“Friday, Saturday and Sunday are the big days. You never know during the week,” he said. “If Monday is a holiday, it’s always a good day.”
Montgomery, who doubles as chairman of the Cave Spring Downtown Development Authority, said folks in Rome would be surprised how many people from as far away as Birmingham and Huntsville make the trek to Cave Spring on a regular basis.
Abercrombie said that, overall, business has been remarkably good during the pandemic.
“We have been busy. It’s amazing,” Abercrombie said. “A lot of people — since they did not get to go on a nice vacation or something like that. We’re maintaining, if not a little ahead. I know they’re buying cars, and they seem to be buying jewelry too.”
Restaurants in Rome are still feeling a serious COVID-19 related pain with limitations on the number of people who can dine inside a restaurant. McNiece said the initial efforts of so many restaurant owners to offer curbside pickup service really helped keep them in business.
The chamber is still making plans for its annual Business Expo on Nov. 5. At this point it will be a hybrid, with both an in-person event at the Forum River Center and a virtual expo thanks to the efforts of Braden Keith and his staff at Romega Digital.