Weathering the storm

Published 12:59 am Sunday, February 1, 2009

By Staff
Downtown merchants By PAUL DUNN
Managing Editor
Gary Tomasulo’s no stranger to adversity. The 61-year-old Washington business owner spent more than 20 years as a corrections officer and captain at Rikers Island, one of New York City’s largest jails.
But his latest challenge made dealing with tough-talking hoods seem like a walk on the waterfront: There he was last week, in a tug-of-war with a new refrigerator. Seems the shiny, spic-and-span appliance arrived covered in black protective wrap.
Despite his Yankee heritage, Tomasulo reigns as president of the Historic Downtown Washington Merchants Association, a position he’s held for six years. He’s also just about to personally take on Washington’s sagging economy by opening a pizzeria on Main Street. He expects to serve his first customers sometime in April.
And that’s why he’s in the pizzeria building most days, stripping off plastic wrapping from expensive appliances and doing the other myriad chores required to open a new business. And though he’s optimistic for the future, Tomasulo doesn’t mince words about his adopted hometown’s current economic fortunes.
Note the word “supposedly.” Tomasulo, who moved to Washington in 2001, blames the media for exaggerating the nation’s economic downturn.
Owners of several established downtown businesses verify Tomasulo’s perception, but like the pizza man, they see better days ahead.
Betty Stewart’s among them.
The 55-year-old owns Stewart’s Jewelry Store on Market Street. She’s the third generation of her family to own the nearly 100-year-old business. Though she has weathered the brunt of the recession, the store has ridden a roller coaster the past few years.
But that’s only because the business sold more merchandise in 2007 than ever before in its history. Last year, she said, matched 2005 and 2006 — all profitable years — but didn’t measure up to 2007.
Lentz Stowe expects things to be slow into early 2010, he said.
Stowe, 48, directs Business and Industry Services at Beaufort County Community College and manages the BCCC Small Business Center.
The economy will rally, he predicts, when financial institutions stabilize and the country formulates a clearly defined plan for reducing oil dependence.
In the meantime, Stowe advises small businesses to “circle the wagons” and keep a sharp eye on cash flow — but stay aggressive: Keep advertising. Offer superb customer service. Hire terrific employees. Seek free, confidential business counseling. And network with other business owners.
Small-business merchants may be particularly adept at surviving downturns, provided they stay focused, Stowe said.
Russell Smith, who owns Russell’s Men’s Shop on Main Street, has taken that concept to heart. Smith — who said his “traffic flow” is down — owns the building in which his business is located and has reduced expenses by maintaining the structure himself.
Smith augments those measures by offering sale prices to customers and “looking for more specials,” he said. And though he’s had “a good January, so far,” he expects his revenue to be down 20 to 25 percent over the next 16 to 24 months.
Competition from major retailers at Christmas didn’t help, he noted.
Over at the Washington restaurant Down on Mainstreet, owners Glenn and Gennia Wetherington are coping with 20 percent less business than in the past three years, said Glenn Wetherington, 31.
But he’s still optimistic.
He expects business to increase as the area eases out of winter.
Wetherington’s also keeping an eye on the restaurant’s overhead. He’s maintained a full staff of employees, but he has cut work hours.
If Lentz Stowe’s ingredients for success are any indication, Wetherington’s employees might take heart in Washington’s entrepreneurial spirit and attractive location.
The tight economy could even benefit Washington’s tourism market, Stowe observed.
From Gary Tomasulo’s perspective, tourists gravitate to destinations that offer unusual opportunities — such as distinctive shops and restaurants.
In Tomasulo’s crystal ball, downtown Washington will again teem with life.
In the meantime, business owners will scrutinize their balance sheets and keep their fingers crossed.