The Gila Economic Development Alliance held its monthly Roundtable on Friday, May 31. The featured speaker was Jeremy Lewis, talking about his business, Furniture Gallery.
"I come from a small town," Lewis said. "I came to Western New Mexico University in 1997 and received a degree in business administration and accounting. During my college years, I worked at Furniture Gallery, working my way up from delivery to assistant manager and manager. I went to work at a manufacturing company in Arizona form 2001-2004. Nine years ago today, when former owner Tony Prewit wanted to retire, I took ownership. I saw quick growth, due to the growth in housing, and almost doubled my business from 2005-2008. On Sept. 1, 2008, I opened a store in Deming. Then the financial markets took a hit, the housing bubble burst, the mine laid off workers, but Silver City managed to stay resilient. 2009 was my worst full year of business, but there was a slight uptick in 2010, with 2011 a bit better, and a dip down in 2012, when I felt more concerned. The mines rehired, and I was being told the country was in recovery, but sales were not keeping pace. The number of people moving here has not stopped, but it has slowed."
He said he asked himself how business could be improved in Silver City.
"I think Western is low-hanging fruit," Lewis said. "It will help stabilize the economy. What can we do? We can be proactive to make Western more attractive. I feel the need to rally around (President) Dr. (Joseph) Shepard, so recruits to the university don't look at us like we're a ghost town."
Lewis cited efforts that need to be made:
1) Try to be as business friendly as possible;
2) Businesses need to be the best they can be and get people to shop local;
3) Work with the university. "I've seen businesses close their doors, when the owners are tired and want to be done." They are not sure how to keep the business going. Ask the university to help them find quality people to keep moving the business forward; and
4) Work with the university to place students in quality business. "We have to first make improvements and take risks, so the people will come."
He talked about the bond issue to improve quality of life. "When someone talks about raising taxes, they usually lose me. But I thought about this one, and now I support it. We have to help ourselves. We need to get behind the bond issue and educate people to support it."
"As business owners, we pay gross receipts tax to the state, and a portion returns to the area," Lewis said. "Too often those being heard are not the ones with 'skin in the game.' We business owners are a crucial part of Silver City. The area has survived many mining ups and downs. The diversity of our economy today is not as broad as it was in 2009."
He said every one of the Furniture Gallery's employees are university students. "I love Silver City, and I want it to be sustainable where our kids can find success."
Jeremiah Garcia, Gila EDA president, said he hears the same passion from the financial institutions locally, but they all have the same problems: lack of work ethics, including getting to work on time and being able to talk to customers.
Sean Ormand of 1st New Mexico Bank, Gila EDA member, said he realizes Lewis has skin in the game. "This is what the Gila EDA is about."
Ormand said he recently talked with U.S. Sen. Tom Udall and told him: "it's tough to make it work in rural towns. Business payrolls are generated by the risk of their capital, and the owners have to be willing to work hard. We financial institutions are in the same position."
Tony Trujillo, Gila EDA member, said what was said at the meeting was why the Gila EDA Roundtable was begun to give a business-to-business voice. "We hit a home run today."
Earl Montoya, self-described community watchdog, said that at a forum, he made a plea, saying the people of the community were not satisfied with Shepard's goals to be just a "good university. We need Western to be a quality university. Part of the problem is that students take Pell grants to pay for their education, but they are never able to pay them back if they don't finish a two-year or four-year degree. We need to look at graduation rates. It would be good to develop a co-op program."
He warned those present that he was not very tactful.
"Look at economic development," Montoya said. "It is fundamental to have an educated community. We can't hire people without a work ethic. We have to have a healthy community. Right now, we're not a healthy community. Look at what happened at the hospital. A number of doctors have left. When a doctor leaves, many of the patients cannot find another doctor. We need to look at education from kindergarten through higher education."
Mike Trujillo of AmBank and a Gila EDA board member said he, too, talked to Udall. "I think Jeremy is a solution. He picked up the ball and is running with it. I also told Udall that there are so many regulations that take time and money. We have to fix that. I know the work ethic in instilled within the family. A person does not necessarily need to be educated to be a success."
Annie Lessem, representing Gila Mimbres Community Radio, said people needed to be aware of the county demographics. "The income level of retirees is higher than of those who are working. We need to pay attention to why retirees come to and why they stay in or leave Silver City."
Ed Greenberg said the comment about how to keep businesses continuing was a good one. Garcia pointed to William Dobricky, interim Small Business Development Center director, who would have ideas for the situation.
L.J. Lundy, Realtor, said she has a business for sale that is very viable, but the owners are tired. "We need to figure out how to use the university, financial institutions and the community to support young people who want to go into business. The owners want 25 percent down. Maybe there is a bridge in the community. We need to be able to say: 'Here are some steps to take to take this business over.' Young folks don't have the money."
Dobricky said a lot of programs are available for that bridge. "I encourage those interested in going into business to come visit us, and maybe we can help these folks."
Lynda Aiman-Smith said, on a small scale, a local business financial support group is providing funding. "There are a lot of ways to help. Our network has specific goals in our plan to encourage and retain small businesses."
Arlene Schadel of the Gila EDA said the organization is "pumping up Facebook, with help from Paul Leetmae (of Lawley Toyota and Lawley Ford). We want to make sure we're tied together. We'll pass on business and financial opportunities. The Gila EDA meets on a regular basis. How can we gather and unite businesses? I hope to keep the momentum going."
Reports from various community officials, community members and representatives of businesses and organizations will be covered in future articles.