Government and business owners of Chestertown strive to balance regulations with sustainability

By: Greg LaMotte

In 2011, then-Mayor of Chestertown, Md., Margo Bailey pushed through the “Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance,” which initiated the phasing out of plastic bag usage among retail stores. The ordinance was hotly debated, but its passage marked a trend of sustainable initiatives in Chestertown.

Six years later, current Mayor of Chestertown Chris Cerino says he has seen most businesses affected by the ordinance switch from plastic to paper with relative ease.

“We’ve had some business forums where we’ve had business owners come talk to us to let us know if there’s anything inhibiting their ability to do something, and none of them said ‘Oh the plastic bag ban is killing me,’ ” Cerino said.

Cerino and other Chestertown officials today still try to sustain Bailey’s green vision for the town while avoiding over-regulation of the businesses affected by policies such as the ordinance.

Town Manager for Chestertown Bill Ingersoll, who helped push the ordinance with Bailey, says he remembers being called out by grocery baggers who recognized him in the local grocery store.

“They actually were fairly abusive to the point where I finally said ‘Hey well I don’t have to shop here,’ Ingersoll said. “They’d say ‘Well, paper bags are more expensive for us,’ and I said ‘Well I’m bringing my own bags so you have absolutely no cost, what’s your problem with me?’ ”

Despite the occasional hostility from those opposed to the ordinance, Ingersoll said the Chestertown community was not the main barrier they faced in banning the bags.

“The real threat was not from our community, it was from the plastic bag industry,” Ingersoll said. “I mean, they were really heavy-handed, and threatening, and ‘We’re gonna take you to court.’ And because we’re a little town they were muscling up on us.”

Political leanings also had an impact on support for the ordinance, according to Cerino.

“It’s one of those 50-50 things where you have your conservative folks saying ‘That’s ridiculous, you’re just costing [small business owners] more money,’ and the folks on the left would probably be like ‘Yeah these bags are recyclable, and they’re not ending up in our drains,’ ” Cerino said.

Economic viability plays a large role in pushing for green initiatives, according to Cerino, who cited as an example a solar array that he helped implement, which now provides electricity for Chestertown’s municipal buildings. Because of federal tax incentives, both the solar companies and the town managed to save money and use more clean energy.

“At the end of the day it’s all about the money, it really is,” Cerino said. “Occasionally you get that very green business owner that is willing to spend more just because of their ethics or philosophy, or what have you, but for the most part business owners are willing to go along with green initiatives so long as they make sense economically.”

The economic recession less than a decade ago had a large impact on the vitality of Chestertown’s small businesses. Bob Ramsey, who owns a custom framing and printing shop named “The Finishing Touch,” downsized after the 2008 recession.

“Since 2008, it’s been really difficult,” Ramsey said. “I mean, I used to have 10 employees and pay a decent salary to myself. Now I have five employees, and don’t pay myself all that much.”

Although the past decade has taken its financial toll on Ramsey’s business, he says he feels “a different uptick in the last two years,” from new people with ideas, and the willingness to devote time and money into their business.

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“Downtown Chestertown has all the wonderful tools to be very successful and busy,” Ramsey said. “It’s got [Washington] College, the river , a receptive town, a historic, working town.”

This optimism is reflected in a Gallup poll released Mar. 13, which found that optimism among U.S. small-business owners has risen to 100 on the Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index, a 33-point increase from one year ago.

Because Ramsey works in small retail, he says he does not encounter burdensome regulations often. As for why businesses in Chestertown may fail, he said “I always like to put the blame on the business as far as not being run properly.” Ramsey also said that Kent County has managed to preserve its rurality, and ensure that when it is developed, it’s “developed smartly.”

But this could change if the federal government rolls back regulations that enforce this preservation.

“If regulations become such that the beauty of this county is dismantled or destroyed or slowly eroded, then it will affect the uniqueness of Chestertown and our small businesses downtown,” Ramsey said.

Ingersoll and other members of the Chestertown local government have worked to maintain this beauty through ordinances such as the plastic bag ban, and by purchasing a new street sweeper which helps prevent heavy rains from pushing litter and road oil into the nearby Chester River.

Because the nature in and around Chestertown, especially the Chester River, is a draw for tourism and a staple of the town’s character, its preservation is key to drawing business to downtown. With a population of around 5000, according to the 2010 census, sustaining the local economy necessitates drawing business from beyond its borders.

Bob Ortiz, a woodworker who handcrafts furniture, runs Robert Ortiz Studios. He says he strives to ensure his shop adheres to existing safety and health regulations, but doesn’t see over-regulation as a reason why small businesses may fail.

“The main reason that businesses fail in downtown Chestertown, in the downtown historic district, the main reason is that they don’t get enough traffic into their stores,” Ortiz said. “And related to that, if they don’t get enough traffic into their stores, they don’t make necessary adjustments to figure out a strategy for surviving.”

He cited as an example the popular Chestertown coffee shop “Play it Again Sam’s,” which originated as a used record store that also sold coffee, but switched to a full coffee shop once the owners realized it was the more sustainable business model.

As for times when regulations have impacted small businesses, both Ortiz and Cerino spoke about the high start-up cost for restaurants due to a law that mandates a specific kind of grease trap. Although it does prevent grease from entering waterways, it makes the demand for opening a restaurant higher.

 

“The truth is, most of the people who think that regulations are onerous are not on the factory floor, they’re up in the offices making the big bucks, and they’re leaving the people on the factory floor who make very little to do the dangerous work,” Ortiz said.

Cerino also says he believes that the Chestertown local government does not get in the way of success for its small business, and said “If anything we’ve tried to be more business-friendly.”

“It doesn’t cost you anything to encourage your customers to put your Pepsi can in the recycling that’s right outside of your store,” Cerino said. “So I don’t feel like we have a lot of [regulations] that inhibit business owners from turning a profit, I think if anything we have issues in downtown Chestertown where we just don’t have enough people sometimes.”

Although local regulations may not be burdensome for Chestertown small businesses, new state and federal ones, according to Ingersoll, can present problems.

“Every time that the state or federal government comes out with a new regulation that involves enforcement of some kind or another, it never comes with any funds to do that,” Ingersoll said. “Sometimes regulation is such a burden on us, but we’re where the rubber meets the road, so there is an impact from regulation.”

Frank Knapp, Co-Chair of the American Sustainable Business Council, brought the same point in a senate hearing with the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship on Mar. 29.

“Help small businesses understand the rules, and provide compliance assistance. Once a rule has been finalized, the job of the federal government is not done,” Knapp said.

Ramsey says what he’s seen done in the past with regulation hasn’t been satisfactory, and that “it seems the government tends to swing too far from one side to the other.”

“They either get rid of everything and advantages are taken, or they go so far that it stifles the good with the bad,” Ramsey said. “So it’s a tough balance.”

Cerino also said that striking a balance between over-regulation and complete freedom is key for lawmakers in D.C. to accomplish.

He posited that while oversight is necessary to prevent a recession similar to the one in 2008, having excessive regulations especially harms entrepreneurs, who may feel that opening their business would need even be worth the time, effort and money.

Cerino commented on how he believes Donald Trump’s proposed 15% corporate tax plan will affect Chestertown as well.

“If that gets lowered to 15 for everybody, I could see it initially being a big net positive for a lot of small business owners,” Cerino said. “But again, for me, it gets back to how we mitigate the long-term risk of people being irresponsible.”

Ingersoll says he agrees that new laws will affect Chestertown, but their impact won’t be felt immediately.

“I don’t think things will change here for a while. No matter how the battle goes in Washington, it takes a long time for that specific legislation to reach us,” he said.

As for regulation in Chestertown itself, Ingersoll says there needs to be a “referee.”

“Somebody has to be the referee and say ‘You gotta do it this way. We can’t do it the old way anymore.’ ”

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