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.’ ”

Senators debate impact of federal regulations on small businesses

By: Greg LaMotte

Members of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship listened to testimony, and discussed the harm and benefits of federal regulations for American small businesses in a hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Senators heard testimony from two small business owners and advocates: Randy Noel of Reve Inc., a builder of custom homes and 1st Vice Chairman of the National Association of Home Builders, and Frank Knapp of the American Sustainable Business Council, who is also CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

Chairman of the committee Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) led the debate.

“It’s small businesses who are responsible for building this country,” Risch said. “They built this country not because of the federal government, but in spite of the federal government. We want to go back to that as far as I’m concerned.”

Ranking member Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) explained that the committee’s job is to allow small businesses to grow, and also shared her concern with how federal regulations affect this growth.

“We need to harmonize and streamline and repeal regulations that no longer make sense,” she said.

However, Shaheen held that certain regulations can “encourage innovation and provide critical protections” to small businesses that need help in these areas.

Noel spoke first of the two advocates, focusing on the lack of input in the rule-making process small businesses have, despite being affected most by them. He referred to the EPA rule “Waters of the United States” as an example of a regulation that impacts homebuilders such as himself without having say in its becoming law.

“In order to reduce the regulatory burden on small businesses, the NAHB believes you must restore Congressional oversight authority to the process,” Noel said.

Knapp echoed this sentiment of small businesses needing more input in his testimony as well, but sought a different route in how regulation of small businesses should change.

“Unfortunately, just as the regulatory decision-making process isn’t serving small businesses well, compliance assistance is also inadequate,” he said.

Both Knapp and Noel cited statistics to support their arguments. Sen. Risch, who is in favor of pulling back on federal regulation of small businesses, praised Knapp’s reform-based testimony.

“It’s the best face I’ve ever seen put on this disaster,” Risch said. “I’ve met morticians who couldn’t do nearly as well as you did.”

Member of the committee Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) was less impressed, and questioned the solutions offered by Knapp.

“I want to be sure I understand what you’re saying….the answer to too much government is more government?” Kennedy said.

Kennedy went on to call the number of rules “breathtaking,” and said that despite the amount and complexity of the rules, the attitude of the agencies that make and enforce them is often an issue as well.

“Too often you just encounter condescension, and smugness, and this unspoken understanding that if you’re complying too much, well, what goes around comes around,” Kennedy said.

Risch shared his agreement with Kennedy’s comments on agency attitude. Risch explained how, in his past occupation as a lawmaker, he would caution clients to never let inspectors for the EPA to come onto their property without a warrant. He contrasted this regulatory experience with times his local fire marshal inspected his office. Unlike how he dealt with EPA inspectors, Risch invited the fire marshal with open arms.

“You know why I did that? Cause I knew that guy was interested in seeing that my place wouldn’t catch on fire, and if it did, they could put it out,” Risch said. “He wasn’t interested in raising money through fines.”

Sen. Kennedy and Noel agreed that an agency funding itself through fines was “a moral hazard,” as stated through Risch’s anecdote.

The final Senator to speak at the hearing was Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who criticized the existence of conflict between regulatory agencies and the small businesses which they regulate.

“That continues to be the challenge—this adversarial relationship that presupposes that people don’t have the same goals for clean air and clean water,” she said.

Noel explained that the need for clean air and water when building homes is evident, but the regulations and paperwork concerning that need aren’t always sensible.

The hearing ended on a nonpartisan note, where both Democrats and Republicans agreed regulatory reform is important in aiding small businesses.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Risch said. “Admittedly we have a little different issue as to the regulatory mass of regulations, but on the other hand I think we all agree that there are some regulations that are necessary, and there’s a whole lot more that aren’t, and we all need to be vigilant about that.”

Sen. Heitkamp offered final words to an Idaho family in the hearing room that, according to Risch, lost their small business due to overregulation, and to other small business owners of America.

“Stay tuned,” she said. “We’re hearing you. And hopefully we’ll get you some relief.”

 

Team of two tackles environmental education for schoolchildren of Eastern Shore

By Greg LaMotte

Former Congressman Wayne Gilchrest and his assistant Jaime Belanger make up the two-person team at the Sassafras Environmental Education Center (SEEC), through which they teach the functions and importance of the local environment to schoolchildren in the Kent County, Md. area.

Gilchrest describes the overall theme of the lessons as agro-ecology, which he said is “how agriculture affects the local ecology.” His work on the center began in 2009 with his exit from Congress.

“[It began] with the idea of developing an environmental center for schoolchildren from K through 12, so when they got out of high school, they would have a frame of reference for how their life, and the life of their community, could be compatible with nature’s design,” Gilchrest said.

Belanger has been Education Program Manager at the SEEC for five years. She sees the mission of the SEEC in part as being a way to get kids outside, which is “something that they get less and less of in our current society.”

“Part of it is providing something they don’t get anywhere else, and part of it is that sort of integrated environmental learning piece, where they’re learning about all the issues that are going to affect their future, and why they’re important,” Belanger said.

Lessons taught by the SEEC, which include activities such as hiking, canoeing, and gardening, reflect what teachers are going over in the classroom. What is taught depends on the age of the children, and what the teacher intends to accomplish.

The center faces obstacles in providing these lessons however, part of which stem from the small staff size.

“It takes a lot for two people to work with 2000 kids,” Gilchrest said. “So we need partners, and persistence is important when you’re reaching out.”

Because Gilchrest and Belanger provide the lessons to schools at no cost, funding also presents a challenge for the SEEC.

“Educational services are delivered free of charge, otherwise the schools wouldn’t have money to come out here,” Gilchrest said. “So one of the obstacles, which continues, is to raise enough money to continue our program.”

Despite these challenges, the cause is worthwhile to Gilchrest, who said he believes environmental literacy is important to teach because children “don’t stay youth very long.”

“In the blink of an eye they’re running the country, and you need to have smart, reliable, responsible adults that understand nature’s design—how it all works,” Gilchrest said.

Gilchrest’s travels across the world while a Congressman gave him insight into how environmental illiteracy is widespread even among foreign leaders, and the consequences that came as a result.

“When I traveled in Congress, literally, many times around the world, to meet in palatial hotels, palaces, and in small, poverty-ridden, war-torn villages, 99 percent of the time I would find out that no one across the table from me knew or cared about environmental issues,” Gilchrest said. “And they completely misunderstood the economic vitality that can come from environmental-sound policies.”

Experiencing this disregard for environmental issues was part of what led Gilchrest to found the SEEC, in order to prevent it in future generations.

“I thought at least on the small-scale I can teach children, so when they get out of high school they’ll have that environmental frame of reference, and they will not be duped by Rush Limbaugh, or charismatic, snake-oil salesmen,” Gilchrest said.

Belanger reflected this notion of protecting children from misinformation as well, saying she doesn’t “want kids walking away with misconceptions that I hear adults say.”

Regarding the new White House administration and anti-environmental regulation bills in Congress, Belanger and Gilchrest say the center has not shifted its goals.

Although Gilchrest says he does not believe HR 861, a bill in the House of Representatives which would terminate the EPA, will pass, to him the consequences if it did pass would be severe.

“That would be catastrophic. From an environmental point of view, from an intellectual point of view,” Gilchrest said. “Not only would it be catastrophic, but it would be just tragically pathetic that our nation would do something so disastrous.”

As for how people can help with environmental conservation issues, Gilchrest holds that group organizing, volunteering, writing and calling Congressmen, or even contacting local government officials can make a difference. He adds that staying aware of issues and voicing opinions is important, and the impact of doing all this can be magnified in one’s local community.

Belanger says she believes more involvement of environmental education in school curriculum is another way to do this, referring to Gunston Day School in Centreville, Md., as an example.

“All of the teachers within this school consider themselves environmental educators, it really should be linked to everything we’re teaching, and that’s what I sort of believe,” Belanger said. “So I hope as a nation we’re working toward that.”

Student Activist Profile: Rachel Ussery

Rachel Ussery, a junior in the School of International Studies, has participated in many aspects of the student activism community at American University.

One of the founding members of Education Not Debt, a campus group which pushes for a tuition freeze, Ussery has also been involved with Fossil Free AU and AU Community Garden. Her entry into activism began with her time at American University.

“I’ve definitely been interested in a lot of social justice issues,” Ussery said. “The town I grew up in didn’t really have an activism scene.”

Although her passion is for climate justice, after spending a semester working on a farm, Ussery’s activism focus has shifted toward food justice and farming, which led to her involvement with AU’s community garden.

Ussery recalled times the AU activist community confronted the Board of Trustees as important milestones for campus activism.

“Those moments have been really powerful in making the administration realize that students are watching what they do,” Ussery said.

The relationship between activism at AU and in D.C. is close, according to Ussery.

“Activism at AU is definitely affected by the fact that we’re in Washington D.C. at the seat of federal government,” she said. “I think it definitely informs what we’re doing.”

Ussery pointed out that since most Americans aren’t able to access D.C. easily, activists at AU have a larger obligation to get involved.

“When we have the chance to make our voice heard on Capitol Hill, or other powerful entities in downtown D.C., I think it’s really important that we’re there,” Ussery said. “Because most people can’t just go downtown within half an hour—but we have that opportunity.”

The new presidency has increased the demand for action by activists, according to Ussery, who “are always kind of waiting for the next big thing to happen with the Trump administration.”

“I think it’s a little more ‘seat-of-our-pants’ activism,” she said.

Trump’s administration has made activists such as Ussery look more outward from campus movements to focus on national issues as well.

“It seems like the situation calls for that with what’s going on in the country, while also integrating that into what we’re doing at AU in terms of making it a sanctuary campus and stuff like that,” she said.

As far as what movements are not receiving the attention they deserve, Ussery believes Black Lives Matter movement is one of the most important and under-reported.

“It doesn’t get the legitimacy and power it deserves,” Ussery said.

In regards to how the election of Donald Trump as president will affect activism, Ussery said she hopes a “new progressive movement” will arise as a result.

“I see a lot of different left-groups kind of coming together for different issues which I think has been really great,” she said. “In terms of immigration, climate, black lives matter stuff, police brutality.”

During the election, Ussery supported Hillary Clinton, but had reservations. Having supported Bernie Sanders at first, Ussery then focused on Clinton, seeing her as a better choice than Trump

“Like a lot of people, I definitely had complex feelings about Hillary Clinton,” Ussery said. “I did vote for her, because I saw Donald Trump, and still see Donald Trump, as a threat that is much greater than she was.”

Ussery acknowledged that there may never be a “perfect candidate” in the presidency, and as a result wanted for a Clinton win.

“At the time I thought it was important for progressives to come behind Hillary to defeat Donald Trump, and here we are,” she said.

Ussery said that although campus activists’ objectives remain the same, she believes the Trump presidency makes activism even more essential, and shifts the way in which it’s carried out.

“It’s more important than ever to be holding universities accountable during these times,” Ussery said. “It doesn’t necessarily change anything that’s going on in universities in terms of our overall goals, I think it changes the urgency, and it changes the perspective through which we’re looking at it.”

The “threat” posed by Donald Trump could hold one redeeming consequence, according to Ussery, which is solidifying and bolstering activism at universities such as AU

“I think the Trump presidency is bringing up a lot of threats that have been there for years, but it’s really coming to the forefront now,” Ussery said. “So I hope that it kind of galvanizes a new generation of campus activism.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sarah Van Gelder talks community and cooperation in struggling parts of America

Author and journalist Sarah Van Gelder traveled 12,000 miles across the country in a truck and camper to see how average Americans are reconciling with economic hardship, racism and isolation from their community.

Gelder, who is co-founder and editor at large for Yes! Magazine, wanted to see how some of the most disenfranchised groups in America address these issues.

“I needed to talk to people and not go in there with preconceived ideas of what the stories were,” Gelder said. “Just ask them questions about their lives, and find out what they’re doing about those issues.”

Gelder’s journey was spurred by Yes! Magazine, which focuses on social and environmental issues, turning 20 years old. This led her to consider what the magazine has accomplished in regards to big questions such as wealth inequality, climate change and racism.

Choosing to practice what she called “slow journalism,” Gelder took her time with the individuals she encountered.

“I wasn’t trying to just parachute in, get somebody’s story having made up my mind what the storyline was, and then leave,” Gelder said. “I was going there to spend time and really hear people out.”

The sense of empowerment people gained by creating a close-knit community in places ranging Detroit to ranches in Montana struck Gelder. She saw how different people from different generations came together to heal whatever problems ailed them. Gelder noted that isolation in communities was common, however, and referred to studies which show people don’t often have others they can trust.

“Research shows that that kind of isolation is as toxic as cigarette smoking, so this real poverty of spirit is completely unnecessary because when we reconnect, we can heal all those kinds of things,” Gelder said.

An instance of community reconnection Gelder saw was an empty lot in Detroit transformed into a community garden by residents, which brought people together and allowed access to fresh, healthy food. Gelder saw this type of reconnection often on her travels.

“One of the things I was looking for and finding all over the country were people who were reclaiming their economy in various ways, including worker co-ops,” Gelder said.

Food security was not just an issue in struggling cities such as Detroit, however. In her time in Kentucky, Gelder saw that obesity and lack of access to fresh food hurt those in the Appalachian region just as much.

Unlike other journalists who visited Appalachian towns prior to the election, Gelder did not focus on politics in her conversations with local people. When the election concluded, Gelder was at Standing Rock Indian Reservation, reporting on the protests for Yes! Magazine. Although she’d already turned in a column, Gelder told her colleagues that she needed to write on the election results.

“It was basically to say that this is like a disaster, and when a disaster strikes, we need to reach out to each other, we need to find out who’s most vulnerable, who’s most likely to get hurt, and make sure that they know we’re there,” Gelder said.

This brought Gelder to the intersecting world of community and protest.

“We have to show up for each other in person, and that’s when we can really create that sense of community and that sense of safety, and also break out of that toxic isolation, which is an issue regardless,” Gelder said.

Although she overall saw communities making positive changes to improve their quality of life and self-agency, Gelder noticed many people had lost hope that they could turn around the financial struggle brought on by the 2008 recession.

In some cases, attempts to revitalize a struggling community backfired. In one low-income area in Wash., Gelder said that after a resident built a community garden, it increased the demand for housing in the area by wealthier people, gentrifying the area and making it even harder for longtime residents to afford to stay.

“There was just no sense things were going to get any better,” Gelder said. “And there were large areas of the country where I had that feeling from people.”

Understanding this hopelessness allowed Gelder to empathize with people who voted for Donald Trump.

“[It’s] almost like throwing a bomb into the middle of it with a ‘Let’s see what happens.’ ”

Despite the desperation for change among those Gelder spoke with, she remained positive about the opportunities offered through community-building.

Gelder offered her thoughts on the state of journalism, and where it needs to improve.

“Local journalism where ordinary people, not just the power-holders, are the ones that get their story out there, that’s really important,” Gelder said. “We need to understand better who we are as a diverse, interesting, creative group of folks—not just who we are in response to the Trump administration.”