Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2007

Wheaton businesses consider starting association

Merchants downtown seek strength in numbers

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Inspired by their recent success in convincing the county to rescind the extension of parking meter hours, Wheaton business owners and residents see a merchants association as the best way to protect and lobby for the interests of small business.

A handful of businesses, county officials and members of the Latino Economic Development Corp gathered Aug. 3 at Caramelo Bakery on Georgia Avenue in Wheaton to discuss forming an association that would advocate for small businesses. The group would give downtown merchants a unified voice when taking on issues such as redevelopment, public safety and shared resources, organizers said.

‘‘It seems that it’s a group of small businesses that want to improve the business environment in Wheaton,” said Ian Morrison, owner of Royal Mile Pub.

Morrison said he felt there was a great potential with the group, which would focus more on the smaller businesses and those who don’t commonly join the Wheaton & Kensington Chamber of Commerce because of time or economic restrictions. Annual dues for the chamber range from $195 to $1,000 for businesses depending on the number of employees.

At this point, specifics like who can join and whether dues would be required have not been determined, said Daniel Parra, director of the Wheaton Business Program with LEDC. However, he said businesses would be in charge of making those decisions.

‘‘We’re not giving them ideas,” Parra said. ‘‘We’re giving them guidance on how to do it.”

LEDC is a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to small, local businesses in the Washington, D.C., area by providing consultation, courses, workshops and loans.

LEDC worked with businesses along 14th Street in Washington, D.C., to form the D.C. Area Local Business Alliance. DC-ALBA has been promoting the Think Local First Campaign, a national movement aimed at encouraging local businesses and residents to shop at local and independent shops before moving outside their neighborhoods. The campaign is something LEDC would like to introduce to Wheaton, as well.

Montgomery County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring, who sponsored the call to repeal the parking meter law, said having small businesses thinking locally first would be important as Wheaton redevelops.

‘‘We’ve learned a lot of lessons in our redevelopment in Montgomery County, and one of the things we would really like to do in Wheaton is celebrate and promote local homegrown businesses,” she said.

Parra said that while businesses in the downtown have been speaking for themselves for years about issues ranging from redevelopment to public safety, the organization would show businesses that they are stronger when they band together.

The same is true for businesses with foreign-born owners who may not be accustomed to the idea of persuading government to make changes when necessary.

‘‘In other countries, it is harder to obtain the ear of authority for things,” Parra said. ‘‘The culture here is, ‘We want to see results.’”

Oscar Chicas, manager of Sergio’s Place in Wheaton, said he is eager to see not only businesses, but also customers coming together to improve the community as a whole. Chicas said businesses could share resources and information about how to operate better, save money or be more environmentally efficient.

Bob Schilke, owner of Little Bitts Shop on Triangle Lane in Wheaton, said the association would benefit the area and the businesses as they move into more redevelopment.

‘‘I think there is going to be a lot of problems facing businesses, like traffic, dirt,” Schilke said. ‘‘All of us are going to have the same problems, so the more people you have, the better.”

However, Nicholas Ali, owner of Pearl Seafood Restaurant and OceanDrive Nite Club on Grandview Avenue in Wheaton, said he saw the association as just another reason to have a meeting.

‘‘I’ll pass because I looked at some of the other chambers, but they don’t do anything,” he said.

LEDC, a member of the Wheaton & Kensington Chamber of Commerce, said that the merchants association would not be in competition or act as a replacement of the chamber, but as a steppingstone to it.

Parra said he hopes businesses can use the merchants association to ‘‘graduate to another level.”

Tim Wiens, president of the chamber, said the merchants association might help the chamber get closer to groups not well represented in its organization.

‘‘There are a couple niches that we are not very effective at reaching out to, like the small restaurant ... and the Latino communities,” Wiens said.

Next meeting

Interested business owners and residents of Wheaton are encouraged to participate in the next meeting about developing a merchants association 5:30 p.m. Sept. 6 at Sergio’s Place, 11324 Fern St., Wheaton.