Growing small businesses in Williamston

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Michelle Armstead
Williamston Post staff writer

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Since the start of 2013, there have been 10 new business openings, a business expansion and a complete remodeling including new business owners in Williamston.

Compared to the same time in 2012, there has been a 25 percent increase in the amount of new business openings in town.

Just in the past 12 months, there has been 20 business openings in Williamston, more than in any other 12-month period within the past five years.

Barbara Burke, executive director of the Williamston Chamber of Commerce, said that there seemed to be more ribbon cutting ceremonies in 2013 than the chamber has done in a number of years.

Growth from 2013, so far, is already more than half of the growth from last year.

“I’d say things are picking up,” she said.

Opening up shop

Among the new businesses are InFocus Photography, the Williamston Barbell Club, the Michigan Lighthouse Art Gallery and the Sweet Cake Company.

Jackie VanDommelen, owner of InFocus Photography, said that one aspect about Williamston that attracted her was the “hometown feel”.

“Everybody kind of supports everybody,” she said.

As a mother of four with one on the way, she wanted to stay home with her children and work flexible hours.

After walking in her father’s footsteps and becoming a photographer, VanDommelen started taking pictures at her children’s soccer games and “fell into” opening her business.

VanDommelen said that her regular visits to the Knitters’ Nook in Keller’s Plaza, after moving to Williamston with her fiance, helped her decide to open her own studio in the building.

“Everybody is really welcoming,” she said. “The different businesses lend a hand to each other. It’s very supportive.”

Shayna Bennett,owner of The Sweet Cake Company, had been in business online since 2008 in Portland, Mich. before opening a shop in Williamston.

A mother of four, Bennett began making cakes for her children’s birthdays and decided to market herself online by posting pictures of the cakes she had made.

She saw an opportunity in Williamston with a business location and opened her shop in March 2013; however, she counts the month that she filed for her business name as her official opening.

“(The community) is very friendly and very excited to have a cake shop in town,” Bennett said.

Bennett is looking forward to offering seating so that people can come in and enjoy a cupcake and coffee as well as having outdoor seating on the back deck in the summer.

Small-businesses and the Downtown Development Authority

Jamie Cripe, owner of Plush Consignments, started her business on a budget with her own money. The clothing racks and other equipment were all brought from Habitat for Humanity and secondhand stores.

She said the Downtown Development Authority and the Chamber of Commerce have been really supportive of her first small business.

The authority’s Façade Improvement Program is intended to strengthen the economy of downtown Williamston by improving the exterior appearance of the area with its priority being commercial, retail, mixed use or professional buildings, such as Keller’s Plaza and storefronts like Plush Consignments and The Sweet Cake Company.

The program supports the preservation of downtown Williamston’s architectural heritage and unique atmosphere, according to the DDA, which gives the town its “hometown feel.”

“We have a family,” said Terie Clover, owner of TLC Memory Keepers. People want there to be small businesses in Williamston.

Surviving economic struggles through community

Seasoned business owners like Dawn-Marie Joseph, owner of Gracie’s Place, Vivee’s Floral Garden and Cafe, Estate Planning and Preservation, Joseph & Joseph Tax and Payroll and soon The Wedding Gallery and a travel agency, said that throughout the changing economy the community has banded together to make their businesses viable.

Beth Phelps, nine-year owner of Tuesday Books, said that when the economy dropped off, business dropped off as well.

“We’ve seen a change and things seem to be picking up” slowly, said Phelps.

The business saw peak sales during the release of the last book in the “Harry Potter” saga during which the entire community participated in the Potterpalooza, a series of events and activities dedicated to the books.

Dan Robitaille is the 13-year owner of the Williamston Sun Theatre, one of the oldest businesses in town. The theater has been open since 1947. Dan and his wife, Lisa, bought the business in 2000 from his parents.

“Even in today’s economy we still have our diehard people that come every week because it’s date night,” said Robitaille.

Opening a nostalgic theater would not be possible anywhere else and they are dying left and right, he said.

The Sun’s current transition from 35mm film to digital systems costing an estimated $80,000. The fundraiser gained checks from dentists and other professionals as well as from business owners in the area who support the impact of the theater.

“We bring in about 60,000 people a year to the town,” said Robitaille. “Someone is going to eat dinner before or after a movie … all of this helps the downtown economics.”

Ellie’s Country Kitchen even held a private dinner on a Sunday, a day when the restaurant is normally closed, and proceeds went to the theater.

“We all watch out for each other, we all support each other,” said Barbara Burke.

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