BERLIN — Autumn Kramer didn’t even know where to find Berlin on the map of Maryland when she reluctantly agreed to come and help her mother look for a new beach house two years ago; now Kramer calls it home both personally and professionally.
“I had always wanted to open up my own flower shop after working in the business for 15 years across the bridge,” she remembers, “as soon as we pulled up and I saw the town and the space, I thought, this is it.”
Kramer’s Bleached Butterfly shop sits in the location of the old Berlin Florist and it was one of four stops this week in a walking tour to recognize businesses like Kramer’s during National Small Business Week.
Worcester County Economic Development Director Merry Mears was joined by Delegate Mary Beth Carozza and George Koste, executive director of Maryland Capital Enterprises (MCE), an Eastern Shore-based non-profit that aims to help small businesses get started and grow in the region, for a stroll through the county’s most sought after destination for new business in the past several years.
“We get a lot of calls from people who want to either start up a business or expand the one they have,” said Mears, “and we are here to help them do that. Whether that means helping them to make connections with the Small Business Development Center, or help them find the financing they need, we are apart of a strong network of people and organizations that want to make sure our small businesses continue to come here and thrive here.”
In the year and a half since Kramer’s floral and home boutique opened in the location that was home to the Berlin Florist for almost three decades, she says things have been going very well.
“Business is booming,” she said. “It’s teachers’ appreciation week, and nurse’s appreciation week, as well as Mother’s Day, two proms and I agreed to do a wedding on Mother’s Day week, which is usually a no-no in this business, but you can’t turn business away when you are small. So, this week has been corsages, arrangements, and plants, oh my.”
Mears says there has been an uptick in the number of people like Kramer who are making the decision to get out of working for someone else, and start their own venture. She points to things like the economy, healthcare and corporate restructuring as a reason why people are taking the leap of faith and going their own way.
“We are definitely seeing a resurgence in people who want to open their own businesses, and we are also seeing a resurgence in larger companies who want to open a new location or relocate here entirely,” said Mears. “It’s never going to be the perfect time to open a small business, but if it is something that is in your heart and it’s a lifestyle that you are willing to live, then I say go for it.”
Mears says making that jump from worker to owner is a little less scary than it has to be because of the help organizations like MCE provides and the vast network that the county has put into place to help, as well as a new push from the Hogan administration in Annapolis to help small businesses survive and thrive in the state.
“In the past, Maryland was known as a non-business friendly state, and businesses both large and small were leaving,” said Carozza, sipping on chai tea from Baked Dessert Cafe, another small business in Berlin. “Governor Hogan and I both heard our constituents who said that the number one issue was the future. How do we make Maryland a strong place across the board, from education to economic opportunities?”
That renewed focus and the existing network to help small businesses is something that has resonated with wanna-be or even existing entrepreneurs here on the shore.
Yet proof that the entrepreneurial spirit still exists on the Eastern Shore, even after the economic downturn, can be seen in the growth of an organization like MCE, which exists purely to help small businesses grow.
MCE started in 1998 and only offered small loans of $500 for small start-up shops, but now, provides microloans up to $50,000 and small business loans up to $150,000. MCE has also become certified as a Community Advantage Lender by the SBA and is able to finance small business loans up to $250,000 with a SBA 7A guarantee. With this, MCE has grown its loan portfolio from about $1 million in 2009 to a portfolio of over $4 million as of 2014.
Still, Koste says while the resurgence is both exciting and encouraging, it hasn’t extinguished the risks that have always plagued the small business owner.
“There are big differences for businesses opening on Maryland’s Western Shore versus ones that open on the Eastern Shore, and much of that has to do with the price of real estate and the population of potential customers,” said Koste. “But, I think the biggest challenge for Eastern Shore businesses is the Bay Bridge and the lack of a major airport.”
Yet, the price of real estate was actually a big draw for Autumn Kramer, who said similar sized spaces she looked at for her floral and home boutique were as much as $10,000 more per month across the bridge.
“I really felt that I maximized my opportunities in all one location here in Berlin,” she said, “I got a great space, in an amazing town, and the price was right for me to start growing, and most importantly, I was able to provide something in the community that wasn’t really there before.”
Mears says people who are coming into the area to plant roots personally and professionally is good for the dynamic of the entire region.
“They bring a fresh energy to the area, and in many cases, they are bringing something to the region that didn’t exist, and that’s appealing to our locals and our visitors,” said Mears. “Berlin is certainly enjoying that infectious spirit and energy, and I think that spirit will begin to move southward in the county to Snow Hill and Pocomoke.”
“We’ve helped two businesses get loans and the funding they need to open their businesses in Snow Hill and they will be opening their doors very soon”, said Mears, “and I know there are calls coming into Snow Hill on a daily basis from people who want to bring their small businesses, or even relocate or expand larger businesses.”
But as Carozza pointed out, the growth of small businesses on the shore is going to be directly correlated with the continued strength and hopeful growth of the tourism and agriculture industries.
“Those industries are our bread and butter,” said Carozza, “so I will always support a robust tourism budget at the state level because for every dollar we invest, the return on that investment is six dollars. So, when we see a continuation of that trend over time, that’s when people like Autumn say, you know what, I want to set up my business on the Eastern Shore.
Yet, it’s not just “come-here’s” who are setting up shop on the shore, it’s “from here’s” too.
Vincent Gisriel and Paul Starkey are lifelong residents, former Stephen Decatur graduates and college roommates.
They started Sprout Creatives, a small web-design firm, in 2007 out of their house. Today, they’ve grown their business, with the help of the county and MCE, to a team of eight employees and contractors, and have expanded their client base to the entire Mid-Atlantic region and California.
“I think one thing in the web design world that gets lost, because a lot of the work is technical, is the face-to-face interaction with your clients,” said Gisriel. “We really try to make a point to get personal and we spend a lot of time building websites for people so we completely understand what they are trying to do with their business.”
That mantra of building personal relationships with clients is something that has been a vital component of Kramer’s growth down the street at Bleached Butterfly as well.
“I try to build relationships with each and every customer,” said Kramer. “I want their business, but I also am very interested about how their day is going. I feel like in a way we’ve lost that in the business world and that personal relationship with your customers is what used to drive small business.”
Carozza says she is often asked about where the shore is in its economic recovery. She says there are no simple answers, but she remains optimistic.
“We are coming back,” she said. “It may not be as dramatic as we’d like, but we are on the right track, and we have a lot of work to do.
But Carozza says you don’t have to travel far on the shore to see that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well on the shore, all you have to do is walk into any small business.