2009-04-30 / Front Page

Business owners optimistic over the spring economy

By Adrienne Downing & Jeff McDonough

We all know that the economy is troubled — these are recessionary times. So we conducted an informal, random poll of Jamestown businesses to see how the national economy trickles down to the island.

The upshot is that island business owners say they have seen an impact locally from the economic slowdown, but are optimistic that spring and summer will bring a rebound.

Scott Sherman of Jamestown Hardware said the spring business has been steady because homeowners are rolling up their sleeves when it comes to repairs. "People are doing more of the work around their homes themselves," he said. "They are hiring contractors less."

Overall, Sherman said, his sales have improved over last year, due mostly to the surge in homeowners' do-it-yourself mentally. "Our contactor sales are definitely down," he added.

Jamestown Wine and Spirits owner Ilish Patel said "downsizing" would be a good term to describe how his business has been affected with the slower economy. "I still have just as many customers, but they are buying less than they used to," Patel said. "If they were buying a case, now they might buy a six pack. They will also not buy as many brand names as they used to."

Patel said the return of warmer weather has brought more activity into his store and the summer day and resident crowds always bring more customers. "I don't think this year will be any different. I am already seeing more people in the last few weekends," Patel said.

Across the street at McQuade's Marketplace, manager Maurice Browning said that although people always have to eat, the grocery business does feel the downturn in the economy. "The last few weeks our sales have been down from where they were this time last year, but overall we are about the same as we were last year at this time," he said. Buyers are more discretionary when times are lean and will not buy as many extras. "For example, they will buy more middle to lower end meats, hamburger instead of steak," he said.

Browning said summer residents do make a difference in sales at the Jamestown location, but they are consistent from season to season so he is not anticipating a great change this summer.

"Overall I think we will be about where we were last year," Browning said.

Conanicut Marine Services owner Bill Munger said the year got off to a slow start, but warm weather and lower gas prices have helped to bring some signs of life back to the marine business.

He is optimistic that the slower economy will keep tourists closer to home this year, which translates into more money for local businesses. "We saw some of it last summer. People from up the bay would not go all the way to Block Island or Nantucket. They would stop here instead," Munger said.

One trend Munger saw last year was that some power boat owners did not put their boats in the water because of high gas prices. "That should be different this year with gas prices not expected to go above $3 a gallon, when last summer they were above $5," he said. "If you have a power boat, you are getting pretty excited right now."

Even the insurance business has taken a hit, although a small one Meredith and Clarke owner Matt Clarke said. "Tourism has no affect on the insurance business other than when people visit Jamestown and see how beautiful it is, they may buy a house."

Clarke said that because insurance is a necessary item, the biggest affect from the slower economy is seen in the lower number of new businesses, homes and cars being purchased. "Business insurance is partially based on payroll or receipts. Several customers in the last year have cancelled their workman's compensation insurance simply because they do not have any employees right now," he said.

With tough times, Clarke said, people rely on insurance more. "People are less inclined to self insure. When times are good, they may be able to absorb a loss better, so they may not carry as much or any coverage on some items. Now, they may not be able to absorb a loss so easily so they are more likely to carry insurance on some things."

David Urban, owner of the Secret Garden, said spring is his best season of the year so he is optimistic. "Our numbers have been steady. We are looking forward to the growing season with the warmer weather," he said.

Chopmist Charlie's owner Chuck Masso said his gross revenue this year so far has been consistent with the last four years. The Chopmist special of two dinners with a bottle of wine has been a big help, he said.

Masso believes people are traveling less distance and looking for value when dining out. Masso also said more people are using credit cards than in the past.

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