"Often the Beginning of Great Enterprises"
[Friday, March 7, 2014]
A knock at the door
made Theodore look up.
Oscar stood there in
the open doorframe,
"The, uh, secretary
said that I don't need
an actual appointment
because I'm heading up
the business incubator,"
Oscar said, waffling.
"That's right," Theodore said.
"Heads of major projects can
come in any time during
my open office hours.
What's on your mind?"
"How flexible is
the town budget on
Theodore said. "We
don't have a lot of money,
but the local economy is
a critical issue, so people
want to support that. Why?"
"I had another idea," Oscar said.
"The end goal is for folks to support it
directly, but it'd need a rescue fund
up front, the bigger the better."
"I'm listening," Theodore said.
Oscar had good ideas, but
no confidence in this area,
so it took lots of coaching
for him to open up about it.
"I started out thinking about
new businesses, which led
to the business incubator,"
Oscar said. "But when I
looked at the current spread
of the local economy, I saw
that it's not very secure."
"That's true," Theodore said.
"There is a slow drain of
businesses closing, and
that costs us people too."
"Exactly!" Oscar said,
finally leaving the door
to come pace in front of
Theodore's desk. "People
won't stay here if they can't
get what they need. So, we
need a way to keep hold of
critical businesses in town."
"We sure do," Theodore said.
"Various things have been tried,
but so far nothing's panned out.
I'd love to hear a new idea."
"Community supported ...
something or other," Oscar said.
"I got the idea from Ronie Ordway,
you know, she does bookkeeping
for a lot of the local farms?"
"Yes," Theodore said. "I try
to book a few hours with her
before making any major decision
that would affect farmers in the area."
"So Ronie got to talking about
Community Supported Agriculture,
while we were comparing models of
business that startups might use,"
Oscar said. "I didn't understand it,
so she hooked me up with Gerald and
Rebecca Back at Veg Out Vermont."
"That's the farm that specializes in
weird vegetables, or rare varieties of
common ones, right?" said Theodore.
"Yeah, we try to buy from them for
Greens on the Green and other snacks
at the park, get the kids eating healthy,"
Oscar said. As he paced from the rug to
the hardwood, the sound of his footsteps
changed. "Some of it's really good."
"That's a valuable way to connect
citizens with local farms," Theodore said.
"So anyway, I was too dumb to get what
Ronie was saying and I kept butting heads
with her and Rebecca, but Gerald took me
outside to show me some of what they'd
done," Oscar said. "They not only got folks
to buy shares, they used barter to get things
built or repaired, to conserve their cash."
"I remember talking about that, because
cashless transactions affect the tax base,"
Theodore said. "The government can't
demand cash if people aren't using it, but
losing too much is bad for the local economy.
So we worked out a voluntary plan where
folks donate some worktime to the town."
Oscar took out his smartphone and made
a note. "Yeah, okay, we could do that
with other CS-whatevers," he said.
"Enterprise," Theodore suggested.
"Community Supported Enterprise,
for a shared project other than a farm."
"That'll work," Oscar said, grinning.
"You know all the big words."
"And you're learning them,"
Theodore said, waving his hand.
"Now, how does this benefit the town?"
"We can save stores so that they
don't go under," Oscar said. "That's
easier than starting up new ones."
"All right, that's economical,"
Theodore said. "How do you
choose which things to save?"
"We have to balance that between
sentiment and practicality," said Oscar.
"Ronie thinks that sentiment is always
part of it because people get attached
to things, and Gerald says that's how
you build a subscriber base. But we
can't save everything, so we have
to focus on critical businesses first."
"Prioritize them based on value to
the local economy," Theodore said.
"How would you approach that?"
"There's a list of things that a downtown
needs to thrive," Oscar said. "Start there --
a hairdresser, a bookstore, a hardware store,
restaurants and clothes shops, and so on."
"Okay, that's a good starting point,"
Theodore said. "What next?"
"Well, look at the businesses, what
would happen if they closed?" Oscar said.
"Say we've got a handful of grocery stores.
If one closes, that's no big deal, we've got
more -- unless that one does something
that none of the other stores do."
"That makes sense," Theodore said.
Folks had been checking local stores
to see which ones carried halal food for
the Syrian refugees, but most of them
didn't, so losing even one would hurt.
"Now look at Collingswood Music,"
Oscar said. "Mr. Collingswood is
old and slowing down, so he wants
to sell out, but nobody's buying."
"Oh, shit," Theodore said,
putting his head in his hands.
"Yeah, that's what I said,"
Oscar replied. "I can't blame
the guy, both his kids moved away,
and he hung on hoping someone else
would take over, but nothing. If he
can't find a buyer by the end of
the year, he's just gonna close."
"And we don't have a backup
for that in town," Theodore said.
"It's worse than that," Oscar said grimly.
"Collingswood is the only music store
in the county. The next nearest ones
are up in Burlington or Montpelier."
"Collingswood handles all the sales
and rentals for every school and most
of the churches or other organizations,"
Theodore said. "The only people who don't
buy there are either making their own or
commissioning things from a crafter. That's
also who everyone calls to rig sound systems
for the DJ or live music during events."
"See?" Oscar said. "If we lose
Collingswood Music, we're screwed.
We need a way to prevent that."
"What about helping Curtis spread
the word to find a buyer?" Theodore said.
"That's a start, but I don't think it's enough,"
Oscar said. "He wants to find someone
young enough to last a long time, which
makes sense, but young people have
a hard time getting up the money to buy
a business. Banks don't like them."
"I can't argue with that," Theodore said.
"How would Community Supported Enterprise
solve this problem? What do we need to do?"
"First we need a rescue fund," Oscar said.
"The town buys the business and keeps it
afloat while searching for someone new
to take over. Then we get people to chip in,
as many as possible, and figure out what kind
of subscription or support network to use."
"Collingswood does all sorts of stuff --
lessons, instrument rentals, repairs,
parties," said Theodore. "It sounds
like they could offer lots of packages."
"Yeah, like Veg Out sells single shares
or family shares, four seasons salad
or just one, plus you can get chicken
and eggs as add-ons," Oscar said.
"That has potential," said Theodore.
"Where would we find someone
to take over the business, though?"
"I uh, thought we could try the colleges,"
Oscar said. "Mr. Collingswood majored
in music at Middlebury. Maybe someone
there would like to run a store, or teach
lessons? Theater departments might
have someone into sound systems, too.
Kids just need a leg up somehow."
"That would play into your plans
to keep young adults in the area
with jobs," Theodore pointed out.
"Yeah, the business incubator is
great for people who want to try
a start-up, but a lot folks just want
a job," Oscar said. "We need variety."
"Even if some of it is sentimental?"
Theodore said. "Not everything will be
as obvious as Collingswood Music."
"Sentimental is fine if we can justify it,"
Oscar said. "Historical buildings, or
anything beautiful -- tourists like that."
"Hmm, there's an idea," Theodore said
as he flipped through his desk references.
"You could drop by the visitor centers at
the Chamber of Commerce, Elks Lodge,
and Moose Club. They should know
current attractions to protect, and maybe
new ones to consider for the future."
"Can do," Oscar said as he made
another note on his smartphone.
"And hey, they all do workshops and
business dinners and stuff. Maybe
they'd be willing to run some classes
about how to maintain local businesses
and keep people living in the area."
"Good thinking," Theodore said.
"I'll ask around about that kind of
presentation, too, and send
interested parties your way."
"Uh, thanks," Oscar said.
"Use this for networking, too,"
said Theodore. "You can't do
everything yourself, Oscar, you
have the business incubator
on your table already."
Oscar sighed. "I kinda
have to," he said. "Fred
won't help anymore, he was
only ever in it for -- well."
"For blocking the Syrians.
I know. That doesn't matter
anymore," said Theodore.
"Fred wasn't the only one,"
Oscar said, looking down.
Fred had gone around
picking up every hothead
and bigot he could find.
"No, but he's the one who
dropped the project like
a hot rock as soon as he
didn't get his first choice,"
Theodore said. "You stuck
with it because you believe
in this town and its people."
"Yeah," Oscar said softly,
"but I'm just one guy."
"Everybody's just one guy
until they get other folks
invested," Theodore said.
"You get the town kids into
nature programs, you can get
people into this too. Come on,
now, how would you pitch saving
Collingswood to a non-music lover?"
"If you don't want to wrangle
event music yourself, you better
make sure there's someone else
who can," Oscar said promptly.
"Well done," Theodore praised.
"That's exactly the thinking you'll
need to pursue this project."
"Yeah, and we have to do
something, or we'll run out of
businesses, and people, and
then the whole town," Oscar said.
"Saving the music store would be
a small step, but better than nothing."
"Small opportunities are often
the beginning of great enterprises,"
Theodore said. "We can build on
that, work it into the town's plans
for economic development."
"Yeah, some articles said that
things like a business incubator or
Community Supported Enterprise work
better as part of a wider plan," Oscar said.
"Also, a municipal plan works better
if it incorporates multiple projects,
rather than trying to do everything
from scratch," Theodore said.
"If we want more cooperatives,
or new businesses, then I can
talk to the banks about giving
them more support, and so on."
"So it's more stable, like linking
one habitat to another," Oscar said.
"That's what I was thinking about
business loss -- a town is kind of like
an ecosystem. Losing pieces is bad.
Community Supported Enterprise
would keep up the diversity."
"All right, you've convinced me,"
Theodore said. "Write a proposal
and I'll put it before the City Council."
"Who, me?" Oscar squeaked.
"Of course you, Oscar, this is
your idea," Theodore said.
"Who else would do it?"
"But -- but -- I don't know
anything about this stuff,"
Oscar protested. "I thought
I'd tell you and you'd find
somebody smart to do it."
"If you feel out of your depth
on this, talk to Quadscore,"
Theodore suggested. "She's
studied small town economies
and population loss for years.
You'll need studies and data
to back your proposal, and
she knows how to find those."
Oscar looked down. "Yeah,
but she's ... kind of scary."
"Scary? Why?" Theodore said.
"She's done all the fancy college stuff,
and she knows the names of everything,
and she doesn't take shit from anyone,"
Oscar said. "I'm just the guy who
trims trees and plans nature hikes.
I don't have the book-learning for this."
"You may not have the same kind of
educational background, but you do
have good ideas and good instincts
for this," Theodore said. "You're
stepping up and doing the work.
You're thinking of solutions."
"Yeah, but it's just ... ideas,"
Oscar said. "I don't know
how to make it all work."
"So learn," Theodore said.
"You're interested in a new field,
but you feel like you're getting
in over your head. That's normal.
It's something you can fix. You can
study business and economics."
Oscar shook his head frantically.
"I can't," he said. "I can't just quit
my job and run off to college!
Besides, I'm a lousy student."
"There are night classes and
online classes," Theodore said.
"Let's try the College of St. Joseph."
He used his smartphone to bring up
the majors. "See, they teach Accounting
and Business Administration. You might
check out Human Services too."
"College is ... expensive,"
Oscar said, shuffling in place.
"It can be, but it doesn't have to,"
Theodore said. "If necessary,
I can help you find student aid."
"I don't know," Oscar said.
"I'm really not good in school."
"Maybe you just didn't have
the right kind of support,"
Theodore said. "Of course,
you could talk to folks in
the Chamber of Commerce.
They're already excited about
your business incubator. I'm
sure they'd be happy to help."
"Yeah, I might try that," Oscar said.
"It's less awful than college or
trying to talk to Quadscore."
"It's up to you," said Theodore.
"I can encourage you, I can help
you find resources, and I can put
your proposal in front of the council.
But I can't learn for you, Oscar. You
have to decide how much you're
really lacking here, and what
you're willing to do about that."
"I'll think about that," Oscar said.
"There's some stuff I can do now
to start on the CSE project. Maybe
that'll help me see what I need to learn."
"That's a good plan," Theodore said.
"Take a week or so and get back to me."
"Okay, I will," Oscar said. "Thanks for
listening to me and ... everything."
"You're welcome," Theodore said,
holding out his hand to Oscar.
"Remember, small opportunities.
"Don't overstrain yourself."
The younger man's grip was
as strong as ever, despite
the uncertainties ahead.
"I'll do my best," Oscar said,
and slipped out of the office.
Sometimes, being the mayor
was about leading people.
Other times, it was about
spotting their potential, the way
buds held the promise of spring.
You just had to coax them to grow.
* * *
This poem is long, so its character, location, and content notes appear separately.