Trends 2016: Peninsula small businesses find their niches

While the state is working on cuts to its budget, small businesses on the Kenai Peninsula should not face similar struggles, depending on the niche they plan to serve.

The climate for the small business is holding steady at positive, said Bryan Zak, the Southwest regional director for the Alaska Small Business Development Center. In particular, there seems to be a good environment right now for new business owners buying up existing buildings or businesses, he said.

“They all seem to be doing very well,” Zak said. “I’ve seen quite a few change over.”

Seasonal small businesses especially don’t seem to be slowing down despite what’s going on at the state level, Zak said. Last year, there was a “real upsurge” in winter travelers, both from within and outside of the state, which helped seasonal businesses even more, he said.

Small businesses in other sectors may not fair as well, though. Zak said “the other businesses, of course oil and gas support services, are kind of not only on hold but perhaps making some decisions (about) scaling back,” in the face of future oil prices.

Rick Roeske, director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, said there can be a tendency for people to want to spend more conservatively and save up in the face of potential economic downturn, since business owners don’t know how long that downturn will last. The downside of that mentality is that the money saved gets taken out of circulation in the local economy, he said.

“The key is to make sure everybody stays spending what they feel is appropriate,” Roeske said.

A 2015 Situations and Prospects report from the KPEDD found that work related earnings on the Kenai Peninsula come out to $1.2 billion, and that 23 percent of those earnings come from about 6,117 self-employed individuals or small business owners.

One such small business owner is Susanna Evins, who opened a storefront for her clothing line Mountain Mama Originals in June. Evins, who previously worked out of her home and via her website, said there were several challenges and rewards that came with having a dedicated business space to run.

“It’s hard to compare because I wasn’t here last year at this time,” Evins said, explaining that business has been slow at times since she opened. “We’re definitely making more mindful purchases.”

Evins said she feels that traditional advertising routes are not always worth the money, and that while she saves on not taking out ads, getting the word out is something that takes creativity sometimes.

“It definitely keeps you on your feet,” she said.

Owning a brick and mortar business comes with several rewards, though. Since opening her storefront on the Sterling Highway in Soldotna, Evins has won the Small Business of the Year award from the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce. Evins said she might never have connected with the chamber otherwise, and that she utilizes many of their services.

Having a storefront as opposed to working from home also provides and business owner access to the advice, resources and help from the larger community of small business owners in the area, Evins said.

“You feel like you’re part of that kind of family,” she said.

While stores like Mountain Mama Originals are experiencing success despite budget issues at the state level, it takes a lot to make that success last, said Crystal Manning, manager of The Bargain Basement in Kenai. In the eight years Manning has worked for owners Bob and Deb Loveall, she has taken over pricing and has seen the amount of work that goes into keeping a business like The Bargain Basement going for the 10 years it’s been open.

One reason the thrift store has stayed afloat for so long is that it has evolved over time, Manning said. There have been times when access to good employees or buying new merchandise has slowed, but the store has weathered those storms.

“We do things a little bit different from when I first started working for them,” she said.

Since The Bargain Basement is not a nonprofit, like some of the other local thrift stores, it is able to get access to and bring in specific goods rather than rely on donations alone, Manning said. People in the community often come to the business to check for needed items before they go to a chain store, she said.

Being able to roll with the punches and put in enormous amounts of time is key to running a small business, Manning said. The store’s owners have not stopped working, sometimes seven days a week, since it opened, she said.

“People need to be aware that a small business is not something you can set up and then watch,” Manning said.

Zak also mentioned that nonprofits might be more affected by the state budget, as some of their funds are matched by the state. The development center works mostly with for profit businesses, and he said he knows of several nonprofits, which make up a sizeable group of employers on the peninsula, that are watching what’s happening in Juneau very closely.

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