New businesses open; owners seeing upturn

Every morning when she opens her candy shop, Michelle Anton and her two part-time employees wipe down the handprints, fingerprints and occasional nose prints left from the evening before on the all-glass storefront.

To her, each smudge left by a potential customer peering for a closer look at the handmade chocolates, gourmet cookies and tall jars of cashews inside is a sign that people are getting ready to spend again.

"You can see the heights of all the different people. It's cute," said Anton, owner of Miss M's Sweets, a newly opened store in Concord's Afton Village.

Anton is one of several new business owners in Cabarrus County who are demonstrating confidence that the troubled economy of the past few years is starting to regain its health.

Down the block from Miss M's Sweets, a new deli, an Italian restaurant and a smoothie shop recently hung "Open" signs in their windows.

Less that a mile farther down, a new vitamin supplement store and a sandwich chain have begun earning their first sales.

According to the UNC Economic Forecast quarterly report, North Carolina's economy, which has been lagging behind the nation, is beginning to show signs of a slow rebound.

Charlotte, the state's largest city, has always been a good economic predictor for Cabarrus County, said John Cox, president of Cabarrus Economic Development.

"Cabarrus County shoulders up to Charlotte, following their economy. They're hanging in there. We're hanging in there," he said.

Interest in business start-ups has been on the rise, said Steve Osborne, the city of Concord's deputy director for business and neighborhood development services. His office fields calls from prospective business owners.

"There are more inquiries. There's more activity now," he said.

Business licenses issued in Concord have increased from 3,245 in 2008 to 3,758 in last year, the most recent data available. Kannapolis issued 78 business licenses in 2008, 140 in 2009 and 74 in the first six months of 2010.

All that is welcome news for a county that was hit especially hard by big job and revenue losses when major industries closed or moved away, including Corning, Phillip Morris and Pillowtex.

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses are responsible for 64 percent of new jobs created nationally over the past 15 years.

Cabarrus County's seven interchanges off Interstate 85 and attractions such as Charlotte Motor Speedway, Concord Mills mall and Great Wolf Lodge help draw the customers essential for small businesses.

But as small businesses begin to peek out of the other side of the recession, they are also awakening to a different world.

Although the Recovery Act makes SBA-backed loans easier to secure than before, the leash-line of credit is short. "So many American businesses became used to using credit cards," said Cox, and that practice is not acceptable in today's business climate.

"Many (owners of) smaller businesses work 60 to 80 hours a week, maybe not buying new equipment, not taking a salary," he said.

Small businesses looking for help from the county, he said, will find few incentives or grants available to them. "County government is not set up to financially help small businesses," he said.

Customers are more cautious these days, too.

"It's a lot harder now." said Kathleen Reeder, co-owner of The Bead Lady for the past eight years. "Every business owner is working a lot harder for less money."

Reeder frequently introduces new products to keep customers coming back: "We have to always reinvent ourselves."

Anton agrees. Concentrating on new trends in candy-making and providing the kind of personal customer service that big chains lack, she has seen sales steady and better than expected for July, a month that's among the least popular for buying chocolate.

As a third-generation business owner, she has watched how small business adjusts to the changing economy. Her grandfather started a bowling alley shortly after coming to America through Ellis Island. When she was growing up, her parents operated fire extinguisher and snow plow stores in Maine.

"We've always been blessed to have customers coming through our door no matter what the economy," Anton said.

Now a business owner herself, she plans to continue that family tradition: "I love the challenge of owning a business."