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Small Businesses Power West Virginia’s, Nation’s Economy

ABOVE: Brittany McVay, a barista at Wheeling Coffee and Spice Co., greets customers seeking a cup of coffee.

WHEELING — Most every business in West Virginia is classified as a small business, and their impact on rural economies is powerful, according to data from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

In 2019, West Virginia boasted 113,410 small businesses. This accounted for 96 percent of all businesses in the state, according to Karen Friel, district director for the SBA in West Virginia.

“We are a small state full of small businesses,” Friel said. “Small businesses create two of every three net new jobs, and they are essential to economic development.

“In West Virginia — because we are a small business state — small businesses employ 50 percent of the workforce. Our family, friends and neighbors … are employed by small business.”

A 2019 report from the U.S. Small Business Administration shows small businesses account for 44 percent of all U.S. economic activity. There is concern at the national level with the growth of larger companies that don’t have a tie to the community.

“The small businesses are the ones that are supporting teams and doing fundraisers for local charities — large businesses don’t do that,” Friel said. “It’s the small businesses that are there for communities.”

Small businesses also experience challenges in obtaining funding to get started. The SBA guarantee loan programs can help them with that, according to Friel. “We make sure they know how it can work, how these programs can free up access to capital,” she said.

In April 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order “permitting agriculture and rural prosperity through an inner-agency task force.”

This resulted in the “Rural Strong” initiative between the SBA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This collaboration is aimed toward helping rural West Virginia and all of rural America by strengthening the bonds between agriculture and business.

Friel said this has made more capital available for new small business ventures. The SBA works to help residents understand how they can apply for those funds, she said.

It typically takes three to five years for a business to get started, and most small businesses take on debt, she said.

She sees no trend among applicants in just what types of small businesses they want to start.

“It’s an across-the-board gamut, from anyone opening a mom and pop shop to someone wanting to start an (information technology) business.”

Those that are successful most often offer products to customers that are unique, and they serve them up in shops that offer special experiences consumers don’t get from a chain store or restaurant — and especially not the internet.

The Jeweled Bird in Woodsdale is a good example. Located in the sanctuary of a former church at 136 Edgwood St. in Wheeling, The Jeweled Bird offers both unique jewelry and gifts. Those who look closely will see things they won’t see even in larger city shops — such as a stainless steel sippy cup with matching silver spoon made by Reed and Barton.

They also offer jewelry appraisal, repair and re-design services.

“We’re a destination location — we’re off the beaten path from a traditional retail and business area,” co-owner Samuel Posin said. “Sometimes, the challenge is just letting people know you exist.

“People are bombarded with advertising from so many different places. It’s about sticking out and calling attention to the services you offer.”

People have to have a reason to come to the shop, according to co-owner Joan Berlow Smith. “They have a reason to come out of their way to us,” she said. “We have unusual pieces and jewelry and giftware that are different from elsewhere. “People bring their friends and relatives to us because of the ambiance. We have people visit us from around the world and many different states.”

Wheeling Coffee and Spice is located at 13 14th St. in Wheeling in a building constructed in 1881, with the business opening as a wholesale distributor in 1884.

Burns coffee roasters were placed in the building in 1886, and those same machines continue to roast the coffee beans today, according to current owner Shelly Smedly.

She said finding qualified employees is the biggest challenge any small business owner faces. She employs eight at the coffee shop.

Smedly touted the abilities of master roaster Larry Sprowls as a major reason for the shop’s continued success.

“He has the ability to time the roasting of the coffee in such a way as to bring out the specific flavor from the beans we get,” she said.

The business has a regular clientele, while other just “pop in” to visit, Smedly said.

Wheeling residents living elsewhere often contact the shop to have specific brews sent to them.

The most popular flavor is “Highlander Grogg” — a blend of Wheeling Coffee and Spice house coffee flavored with maple syrup and rum.

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