Businesses talk shop with county

Jim Toms, owner of PaPa Jim’s Soft Serve Treats in Troy, started things off by commenting on the county’s sign ordinances. When he opened in 2011, the “sign policeman” told him he couldn’t have his own sign separate from that of nearby Troy Market, he said. But Troy Market is 75 feet away and operates under different business hours, he said. He asked them to make an exception but said they turned him down.

“I felt like with Fluvanna it was your way or the highway,” Toms said. He said he would like to see a county employee specifically dedicated to working with businesses.

Debbie Lucado, manager of Union Bank and Trust by Food Lion and the president of the Chamber of Commerce, said that the lack of a centralized business district hurts Fluvanna businesses. “Unless you’re on the traffic pattern of a particular resident, they don’t even know your business is there,” she said.

Lucado suggested placing “very attractive signage” pointing to business areas at most of the major intersections in the county. She wanted the signs to be uniform in appearance so that drivers can get used to looking for them. Such signs could help quell the comment she said was universally loathed by small business owners: “I had no idea you were here.”

Jennifer Monges, manager of Red Rocker Candy in Troy, said that her business qualified as an attraction and was therefore able to make it onto the Virginia Department of Transportation’s coveted highway signs. But once visitors get off the highway, she said, there is insufficient signage to guide them to Red Rocker Candy. “And the sign ordinance doesn’t allow them,” she said. She suggested offering expanded sign options to businesses registered with Fluvanna as an incentive to get those businesses on the books.

Tracey Williams, a partner at Jefferson Pharmacy near Food Lion, also spoke to the need for signs. “We want signage on Rt. 53,” she said, explaining that her business is located too far back to be visible from the main road.

“There are a lot of ways we can do better on signage,” acknowledged County Administrator Steve Nichols. He said the county’s sign ordinances are currently up for review to make them more business–friendly.

Nichols pointed to Smith as the county–business liaison Toms was seeking, calling him businesses’ “belly button to poke.”

Smith agreed, inviting businesses to contact him with questions or concerns and urging participation in the county’s newly–formed economic development and tourism advisory council. “We need to connect the dots,” he said. “We have a ton of resources, a ton of stuff going on – it’s just about communicating and collaborating to get that stuff to the folks who want to see it.”
Nichols floated the idea of a $25 annual business license fee. Establishing the fee would generate a small amount of revenue for the county but, more importantly, would help the county establish an up–to–date record of the county’s 700 businesses. “Would that be too onerous?” he asked. No one responded.

For several months the county invited all Fluvanna businesses to participate in a survey regarding the county’s business climate. Responses came from 65 businesses – about a 10 percent participation rate, said Nichols.

Of the respondents, 43 percent indicated that they were satisfied with the overall level of support from local county offices. About 37 percent said they were satisfied with the local building inspection process, while 32 percent said they were satisfied with other local permit and inspection processes. Only 26 percent were satisfied with local planning and zoning processes.
Just over half said they would recommend Fluvanna as a business location, and 57 percent agreed that starting a business in Fluvanna is “easy.”

According to the survey, Fluvanna’s business advantages include the cost of doing business, quality of lifestyle and environment, and proximity to customers. The disadvantages include the small size of the local market and an uncertainty of customer loyalty.

The forum also offered opportunities for networking and two presentations – one by Diane Arnold, business counselor, on services offered by the Central Virginia Small Business Development Center (SBDC), and one by Betty Hoge, Central Virginia SBDC director, on social media basics for businesses.

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