By Barbara Taylor, NY Times
I recently ran across an article in The San Francisco Chronicle titled “Big City Blues” in which the author described his struggle over whether to leave the Bay Area and move his family to a more affordable city. While I found myself nodding my head in agreement, I had to laugh at the way he put the process in terms of ending a long-term relationship.
I had a similar break-up with Seattle back in 2003. Given today’s economic climate, our move now seems prescient. Back then it was based on frustrations like a three-hour daily commute, and a growing discomfort with housing prices. Like so many business people, we were constantly running the numbers in terms of both our personal and professional goals. But we kept coming to the same conclusion: We just couldn’t make it work in a city as expensive as Seattle.
We discovered Northwest Arkansas when my husband Chris’ parents retired and built a house on Beaver Lake. The first time we visited we were surprised not only by the natural beauty of the Ozarks, but how vibrant the local economy was — thanks in large part to the presence of Wal-Mart’s corporate headquarters in Bentonville.
In addition to our desire to be closer to family, we also wanted to relocate to a part of the country that was ripe with opportunities. We knew starting a business in a mature market like Seattle would be competitive and expensive. It was Bentonville or bust.
Since moving to Northwest Arkansas, I’ve met several business owners who relocated to the area for the same reasons that Chris and I did. One such owner is Geneva Currin, a 20-year veteran of the floral industry who moved to Bentonville from Chicago. Geneva had owned That Flower Shop on South Dearborn in the Printer’s Row district of Chicago for nine years. She had sent an endless stream of arrangements to Oprah’s offices and counted Michael Jordan and his wife among her clients.
But the pressures of being a single mom and business owner in Chicago eventually led Ms. Currin to move closer to family. She sold her house and her business and moved with her 2-year-old son to Northwest Arkansas. “I was open for business in three months,” she said of Bloom, the flower shop she opened in July 2003, on the historic Bentonville Square. I asked her if there were any surprises when it came to operating her business in a smaller market.
“My cost of goods went up, which was something I didn’t expect,” she said. “I’m no longer near a wholesale flower market, and I’m not located at a major airline hub for either domestic or international deliveries.”
She also ran up against what I call the “hometown” attitude. Loyalties run deep in a small town. While some people will welcome a new business to the area with open arms, others perceive you as a threat to local owners. “Some people will never buy from you,” Ms. Currin said. “They ask themselves why they should buy from the Chicago lady instead of someone they’ve known for years. I worked hard to differentiate myself. After a while people realized that I was creating unique designs that no one else was doing.”
One of the benefits of being in a small town, Ms. Currin said, is having customers who are much more forgiving. “They want you to work 24/7 in a big city,” she explained. “Now my customers don’t expect me to be behind the counter every time they walk in. In a small town, they’ll let you close on Sundays.”
Like many small business owners, Ms. Currin still struggles to balance the needs of her business with her personal life, although she said it’s a lot easier now. But she is quick to point out that the move from a big city to a small town requires a lot of soul-searching. Here are some things to think about:
1. Consider what you are willing to live without. As the entrepreneur and blogger Penelope Trunk says in The Chronicle article, “you never regret what you’ve got; you regret what you give up.”
2. Rent a house in the area before buying. Ms. Currin rented a villa in Taos, N.M., only to find that she didn’t care for the arid climate and landscape. Chris and I rented a house near Beaver Lake when we first moved, but quickly realized that we needed to be closer to town.
3. Do your homework. We knew we wanted to start a business, and researched smaller markets that were experiencing economic growth (Bellingham, Wash., and Colorado Springs, were also on our list). Northwest Arkansas was named the nation’s strongest regional economy in a 2003 study by the Milken Institute, and consistently ranked high in “most livable city” surveys.
Have you moved your small business to a smaller market? Has it worked out the way you hoped?