If you want to live in a rural community, you may have to make your own job. That’s a well-known reality of rural life and sole-owner businesses in Wallowa County continue to be an important part of the economic picture for the county. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2013, a total of 3,405 individual-run businesses generated $1,247,280 in Baker, Union, and Wallowa counties.

With that significant number in mind, Northeast Oregon Economic Development District (NEOEDD) Outreach Specialist Kristy Athens recently investigated the issues individual-run businesses face. In a non-scientific survey of self-employed business people in the region, Athens asked five questions of respondents: what they loved about being self-employed, what their top obstacle was, how they overcame those obstacles, what their current challenges were, and how regional government could help.

She interviewed 35 sole-owners of businesses. Of the 35, 28 were from Wallowa County, two from Union County, and five from Baker County.

According to Athens’ report, most of the respondents have been in business 10 or more years. Six people made $30,000 or less in sales in 2014; 20 percent made $30,000 to $50,000; 27 percent made $50,000 to $100,000; and a full 33 percent made more than $100,000. Nearly half reported that their 2014 sales were higher than the previous year.

Respondents were in lodging, manufacturing, agriculture (18 percent); arts and culture, recreation, food service, and professional services (14 percent); retail (42 percent); and other (26 percent). The “other” category included yard care, golf, storage units, and service industry.

When asked what they love about being self-employed, most people cited the autonomy of “being my own boss,” including both creative and scheduling control.

Most listed their top obstacle to launching a business to be access to capital and locating and/or upgrading a building or other space. Other issues concerned confidence, accounting skills, finding employees, marketing and local support, and regulations.

Respondents overcame those obstacles by educating themselves with classes and workshops; utilizing local business development opportunities including the Small Business Development Center; finding a funding source (including family and friends, or friends with influence at local banks); advertising; and relocating to another town. Many said it took thrift, hard work, and persistence.

They listed current challenges of finding competent and reliable employees, remote location, weathering the financial ups and downs of seasonal tourism, and competing with corporate stores and Internet commerce. One person noted that “the hiring of a (sub-contractor) is difficult in this community when my business requires confidentiality.”

When asked how regional government can help small businesses thrive, people pointed out that state and federal employment regulations and the tax code favor large corporations, not “mom and pop” operations. One asked for local government to “stop submitting RFPs that focus on best price, and start considering quality work (that) will cut costs in the long run.” Respondents also asked for help with continuing education and business coaching, promotion both within and outside the region, and grants and financing. Others want local government to “get out of the way” altogether.

NEOEDD will offer its popular six-week business foundations workshop in October and November in Enterprise. The free class is scheduled Thursdays, Oct. 1, through Nov. 12, from 6 to 9 p.m. at Fishtrap, 400 Grant Street in Enterprise. Class size is limited and registration is required.

To register, call NEOEDD by Sept. 25 at 541-426-3598 or email kristyathens@neoedd.org.

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