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Small businesses weathering the storm
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While some businesses in Liberty County seem to be here today and gone tomorrow, there still are a few establishments clawing their way through the tumultuous economy.

Right next to Gene’s Fishing and Hunting, a 23-year-old business on E.G. Miles Parkway, a lot sits vacant where the Chow Hounds restaurant used to be.

"She just went out of business, that’s all we know," said Walter Lockhart, manager of Gene’s.

Small businesses boost the local economy but entrepreneurs who are new to the scene should really count up the costs before they jump in feet-first, according to Willie Roberson, who runs ANW Produce, a fruit stand in Walthourville.

"A lot people can’t make it on their own with a small business," said the 85-year-old retiree. "I’m just making enough money to pay the expenses."

It can take up to four to five years to break even from the costs of business ventures, according to Lockhart.

"That’s in any business," he said. "You can’t go and spend what you don’t have."

Even with a solid nest egg, small businesses are not immune from the ripple effect set off by shake-ups on a larger scale.

"We’ve been hit pretty hard," said James Jones, manager of K & P Enterprises, a commercial janitorial company. "We are because we were doing quite a bit of contract work for the state of Georgia ... and they’ve all been terminated."

The company started in 1994 with three employees and at one time had 100 staffers. Now, they’ve dwindled to 68 employees.

"It’s awfully slow — the impact it’s having," Jones said of the economy. "I’ve talked with many small business owners, and it’s kind of throughout."

Liberty County Chamber of Commerce is trying to help residents hold on to the American dream of opening a business.

Free counseling is available every Wednesday from a representative of SCORE, a nonprofit organization that partners with the federal Small Business Administration.

"The majority of people who come to see me are what I would classify as aspiring entrepreneurs — people who have fantastic ideas but may not have thought it through all the way," said Cathy Thomas, SCORE counselor.

Preparation is often the missing link when it comes to start-ups.

"They haven’t really thought it out ... what it’s going to take to get through the hard times," Thomas said.

Since the free counseling session became available, Thomas estimates she’s seen about 50 people. She said obtaining start-up funds is often seen as the most important objective, but business plans matter more.

"You got a long way to go before your start addressing money," Thomas said. "There really are no such thing as grants."

Lenders like to know there is some vitality before dishing out loans.

But small business is the backbone to the economy, according to Thomas, and the industry will make it through the rough spots.

"People are scared now and willing to try their entrepreneurial spirit," Thomas said.

"I tell everybody the most gratifying things about the business is when you pass out the paychecks every other week," Jones said. "You’re kind of giving back a little bit and helping other folks."

"It takes a lot of commitment," Lockhart said. "If you’re going to run a business you’ve got to be there every day… if you own your own business, that’s what it takes: dedication to your business."

"It isn’t just a case of ‘I’ve got this great idea and let me get the keys to this storefront and open the doors,’ " Thomas said. "It’s rarely that easy."

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