What This Small Business Needs

Dear President and Congress,

I'm so glad to hear everyone talk about small business and job creation.  And by "everyone," I mean everyone except small business owners themselves.  We're too busy running our businesses to take time out to talk policy.  But I was pleased to see this article about how a survey of actual small businesses finds that regulations and taxes aren't our biggest problem.  I couldn't agree more.

I'm part owner of a true Main Street business–a bookstore in our small downtown.  We employ four people and would very much like to hire another person–so put us squarely in the "job creator" category.  Here's my opinion on what a small business like ours really needs–and it's not lower taxes. Honestly, we don't make that much money, so our tax rates are already pretty low. And it's not less regulation that we need, either. Here's what would really help us:

1. Health care for everyone.  We joke that our company health plan is that we'll pay for our staff to get a flu shot, and give them paid leave to go get the shot.  But it's no joke.  We want our staff to be healthy, we want them to be taken care of, and of course we want them to be able to show up for work, even during flu season.  Sorry, but any insurance sold on the private market is more expensive than what a retail employee can afford–and we pay more than most retail businesses in our area.

2.  An educated labor pool.  Our employees don't just have to be well-read.  They also have to be able to tally simple numbers in their head, count back change the old-fashioned way, and recognize when two inexpensive paperbacks are accidentally rung up for $100. Believe it or not, we have had difficulty finding even college-educated applicants who can do these simple tasks.

3.  A fair deal on sales tax.  As you know, Amazon and other Internet retailers are fighting moves by states to collect their fair share of sales tax.  It's time to fix this outdated system.   A simple piece of software can help even the smallest retailer collect and pay sales tax. It can all be automated, and any company that claims otherwise is just making excuses.   The states are looking for national legislation to help fix this once and for all.

4.  A functioning postal system.   Figure something out and keep the post office running.  We do a lot electronically, but we still depend greatly on our local post office.

5.  Better infrastructure.  Our light posts in downtown are beyond the end of their useful life and there is no money to replace them.  We need them for lighting and ambience, and we'd like to be able to hang flower baskets or holiday decorations from them, but they can't support the weight.  This sounds like a small issue, but things like this keep a downtown vibrant–and as one thing after another deteriorates, a shopping district can start to look pretty shabby.

We also have a parking lot paved only in gravel.  We need that lot paved and striped so our customers can have more (free) places to park. 

And while we're at it, our small, underserved airport makes it hard to get people in or get people out.  Our freeways need upgrades to better stand up to mudslides and other adverse weather. We could use some train or bus service. Even a seemingly stationary business like ours involves travel–we want tourists to come here, and we have to ship goods — and people–out of here from time to time.

6.  Help for homeless and mentally ill people.  Bet you weren't expecting this one, were you?  But the fact is that a lot of homeless, nearly-homeless, and mentally ill people wander around downtown and hang out in or in front of our stores.  It's not that we don't welcome people from all walks of life in our store–we do.  We regularly sell our "bargain" books to homeless people for a quarter, and we're happy to do it.  But honestly, I'd rather see them spending their days getting treatment, services, job training, and so on.  And it's a simple fact that sometimes, large crowds of panhandlers or people with obvious mental health issues can be intimidating to shoppers.  I wish I could make this easier and more comfortable for everyone involved, but I can't.  We could use some help with that.

7.  Better policing downtown.  You would not believe how nice it is to have a cop walking the beat in downtown.  It stops so many problems before they start.  We very much need a properly-funded police department.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  The private sector has not volunteered to solve any of these problems for us.  We want, need, and expect government solutions to the problems we can't solve on our own. Of course, some of the issues I mentioned are local or state issues, but there are federal programs that could help with everything on this list.

Let us worry about how to sell more products, increase our profit margins, and hire more people.   You work on this list–and thanks in advance for your help.

–Amy Stewart