This is an op-ed from Downtown Ithaca Alliance Executive Director Gary Ferguson. It was not written by The Ithaca Voice. To submit op-eds, please send them to Matt Butler at mbutler@ithacavoice.com.

This is the time of year (December and January) when our small businesses here in Ithaca need the support and patronage of their community. As we know, it is remarkably easy to sit at home and use Amazon or any other major online retailer to satisfy our holiday gift needs. As the cardboard boxes stack up and the Amazon trucks zoom about the region, it is easy to forget that day after day our local small businesses are also here ready and willing to share their expertise and passion for their products with you. 

It is important for us to remember the reasons why shopping local, shopping small, and patronizing Downtown businesses this holiday season and throughout the new year is so important to our small businesses and our community overall. 

Our small businesses are owned by people just like you and me. They are our neighbors. Many of these owners are deeply engaged in our community and that engagement extends to their businesses. To that end, our small businesses disproportionately give to the community, various causes, school groups, and 

fundraisers. They are often there to support and help the many nonprofits that enrich and build our community. 

Our small businesses are the front line of our community. They routinely greet visitors, provide insights and guidance for tourists and visitors, and share their insights with our visitors. 

Being a small local business is a difficult occupation. Owners work long hours. I recently talked with a Downtown business owner who confided that he had taken only five days off over the past three years, even when he was both injured and ill. 

Small business owners typically invest a substantial proportion of their personal or family assets to start and sustain their businesses. The risks are tremendously high and the pressure to succeed is equally intense. The common perception is those small business owners in Ithaca are wealthy and live the good life. In reality, our small business owners come from all backgrounds and incomes. Many rely on store sales to sustain their family and personal income. 

Our owners are diverse people—many women, many from the LGBTQIA community, and a number of immigrants and folks from other cultures. We have a growing number of BIPOC business owners and managers. 

Small businesses face stern financial challenges daily. Their net incomes are often slim, affected by fixed costs like rent and utilities, regardless of sales volumes and patronage. 

Small businesses rely on employees to help cover the many hours they are asked to stay open. Some owners work 60-80 hour/week schedules. Others seek to hire employees to cover some of these hours. The challenge for small businesses to hire and retain employees has been widely reported. Retail and food services businesses have been severely impacted. With limited revenue, small businesses have built-in limits on the amounts of wages and benefits they can afford. 

Our small businesses regularly bet on the future. They buy inventory months ahead of a season, hoping to convert these goods into sales. If they guess wrong, their working capital gets locked up into unproductive inventory. They may not have the cash to procure more goods to sell in the coming seasons. This ongoing calculation can be unnerving and any miscalculation to accurately predict the future can doom a business to failure. 

Small businesses are always captives to the larger national markets and political events. National election results have been shown to influence local buying decisions. Economic trends that emanate from Washington or the Ukrainian war front affect the cost of goods and the buying habits of us consumers. 

The pandemic has had perhaps the most dramatic and intense impact on the small business economy of any event in our lifetimes. Most of our small businesses here in Downtown Ithaca, and indeed throughout our community, survived the extreme conditions of 2020 and 2021, a testament to the fortitude of our owners. While we the public tend to look at the pandemic in our rearview mirrors, this is simply not the case for most small businesses. The extreme pandemic years drained small business resources and reserves. Federal and state support programs like PPP and EIDL helped to stave off disaster, but these programs were temporary and no longer provide ongoing or lasting support. 

Today, many of our small businesses wrestle with the multiple concerns of drained finances, labor shortage, and depleted personal and mental stamina. As we the public emerge from our pandemic shells, our small businesses are confronting the anguishing reality that their fight to survive the pandemic is still with them. In recent months, we have seen some businesses succumb to these multiple threats. 

So, as you complete your holiday shopping, seek fun and entertaining diversions for family and guests, and think about the cold winter months ahead, consider our small businesses in Ithaca. These need your support; they need your encouragement, and they will be grateful that you also remember them. 

Gary Ferguson 

Executive Director, Downtown Ithaca Alliance