Chamber's farming fertile ground

Small-business startups have become a bountiful crop.

Published February 18, 2007

Ask Hernando County Chamber of Commerce executive director Pat Crowley about the state of business in her county, and you will get a resounding thumbs up.

Last year saw nearly 300 new memberships for the organization, a 30 percent jump in recruitment from the year before.

All of which proves to Crowley that the county continues to be fertile ground for entrepreneurship, with more small-business owners latching on to the prospect that the ever-growing county will bring them success.

For 2007, Crowley says her organization will continue to nurture those businesses.

"Our most important task has always been to let small business owners know that we're the place they can go for answers," Crowley said. "The growth of our county will continue to bring great opportunities, and those businesses that have prepared for it are the ones that will make the most of them."

Crowley estimated that 40 percent of the businesses that join the Hernando chamber each year are started by people who have never owned a business.

Most, she said, are in the dark on issues such as how to obtain financing, insurance matters, advertising and marketing, and other matters crucial to their business.

Shortly after she took the reins of the chamber in late 2004, Crowley set out to provide more user-friendly services, such as the Entrepreneurial Academy and Keys to Success workshops, which allow small-business owners to get low-cost help and direction in planning their futures.

"I think these programs make a huge impact on the success rate of local businesses," Crowley said. "It helps take away some of the guesswork involved in running a business."

Although Crowley said the recent slowdown of residential construction in the county could slow business growth in 2007, she doesn't believe the overall business climate will suffer much.

In fact, the opening of Carrabba's Italian Grill, and the pending arrival of such other high-profile chains as Old Navy and Linens 'n Things, are signs that the corporate world sees Hernando as a market with potential.

"It's going to be good for everyone," Crowley said. "Which is why I believe the chamber needs to do more to be ready for it."

Still on the burner, Crowley said, is the chamber's need for new headquarters to replace the present location at 101 E Fort Dade Ave. in Brooksville. It lacks space for some of the workshops and seminars the organization regularly hosts, she said.

Crowley said a building committee was named last year but hasn't made final recommendations.

Nonetheless, Crowley hopes the organization will acquire property during the coming year - preferably near Brooksville on State Road 50 or U.S. 41- and be able to finalize construction plans within a year or two after that.

"Everyone is aware that it's not going to get any easier or cheaper the longer we wait," Crowley said.

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1435.