By Charlie McKee
At the August 22, 2014, meeting of the Gila Economic Development Alliance Roundtable, this month's guest speakers, Diane Barrett of Diane's Restaurant and Billy and Dawn Donnell of Bear Creek Cabins, shared stories of their respective businesses' successes and their challenges as small businesses operating in Grant County.
Barrett described the evolution of Diane's from a small bakery 19 years ago to expanding the business with the help of her son to a restaurant serving dinners; then adding the separate bakery seven years ago; and lastly expanding again to incorporate The Parlor four years ago. She noted that she also operates a catering business as a fourth line of business.
Barrett stated that it is "extremely tough to run a business in Silver City" and that she began with minimal funding of $5,000. She stated that business planning guidance from WESST Enterprise Center of Las Cruces and the backing of Western Bank, calling Pam Archibald "a goddess," were key factors in her ability to expand and achieve her goals. Barrett also told the members of the Roundtable that she attributes her success to a very strong work ethic; the fact that hers is a family operated business with her two sons; her four lines of business that can compensate for one another in slow periods; and that she is willing to train and teach unskilled, but promising, young people how to perform their jobs. The restaurateur then expounded the problems with the labor market in Grant County: how difficult it is to find talent; the decline in a viable workforce in the last 10 years; the impact of the significant drug addiction problems in Grant County; and problematic lack of work ethic which Barrett believes starts with parents.
Barrett reported that she has had a total of 748 employees since 2004 and that "everybody's teenager has worked for me." She also told the members of the Roundtable that, with all the challenges, the almost overwhelming workload, the steadily rising cost of food, and the vagaries of the economy, "I love Silver City, and I love being here; but it's a tough market."
Billy Donnell then spoke to the Roundtable members about the challenges of operating the Bear Creek Cabins in Pinos Altos on a very small profit margin and working very long hours. He stated that both he and co-owner Dawn Donnell must maintain other jobs in order to provide adequate income. The Donnells purchased the cabins at the height of the real estate market eight years ago, and Donnell stated that it has been a struggle to continue its operation since that time. Donnell echoed Barrett's experience with finding good workers, and Dawn Donnell stated that their "best worker is 82 years old!" Donnell also stated that "we need to expand tourism, and everybody [in the business community] needs to help each other." He noted that the 15 units of Bear Creek Cabins attract primarily tourists from Arizona looking for a cooler climate during the hot weather. He added that winter is particularly difficult in terms of bookings and that even the holidays are not as busy as they were previously.
Donnell announced that they are constructing a new building on the property in Pinos Altos, which will provide an additional line of business as a venue for weddings, reunions, business meetings, and other events and will accommodate approximately 65 people. He noted that it has been a struggle to obtain state permits and to "jump through all the hoops" to complete the construction.
Various members of the Roundtable had suggestions for increasing business for both Diane's Restaurant and the Bear Creek Cabins:
- Jeremiah Garcia emphasized asking each other the question: "What can business partners in Grant County do to help one another?" Specifically, he suggested creating joint (e.g. restaurant/lodging) discount packages during the winter months to encourage locals to patronize the businesses.
- Joe Shepard urged everyone on the Roundtable to give positive reviews on Trip Advisor, stating that it is positive action costing $0.
- Arlene Schadel encouraged leveraging Facebook to attract customers.
- Roundtable audience members suggested creating weekend getaway packages for locals; marketing to motorcyclists and hunters, particularly in the winter months; and providing a cohesive tourism program that includes businesses being open consistently on Sundays.
At the conclusion of the speakers' discussion, Christine Logan of the New Mexico Economic Development Department announced to the members of the Roundtable that the Department has $3 million in loan participation funds for 2015. The funds are available to small businesses in New Mexico, and the process for obtaining the funds through local banks is straightforward and similar to the Small Business Administration (SBA) process.
After brief updates from the members, the next Roundtable meeting date was announced as September 19, 2014. The meeting was then adjourned.