COLUMBIA — Even as the country continues to limp through a prolonged economic recession, new businesses are opening in Columbia at a steady pace.
During the past six months, dozens of businesses have opened — or reopened — to offer the community more choices in dining, fashion, beauty, entertainment and recreation.
Since January, at least 320 new business licenses were issued by the city. That's an average of 53 per month, according to documents provided by Columbia’s Business License Office.
This rate is comparable to 2008, when the average number of licenses issued per month was 52.
The crop of new owners share the common challenges of dealing with changing economic conditions, rising prices for raw material and finished goods, and shifting consumer attitudes and spending habits.
Yet despite the closure of at least 20 businesses in the second half of 2008, the new owners are confident, determined to succeed and openly optimistic about the current health of their operations. Here is a look at a few of them.
Loma Vista Hardware
It began as a hardware store 35 years ago, added skateboarding 25 years ago, has dabbled in high fashion, and counts singers Shania Twain and Natalie Merchant, the Toronto Blue Jays and a Saudi prince as customers.
In May, Loma Vista Hardware opened a new location in the Columbia Mall with a very different economic backdrop.
The business opened in mid-May after closing its original, longtime location in the Westport area of Kansas City.
Although the new location is smaller than the former Westport spot, owner Todd Dean is upbeat and embraces the change.
“The time was right and the space was right,” said Dean. “The (Columbia) mall has been after us for quite a while.”
In part, the move to Columbia was sparked by a sharp rent increase for the space in Westport, a location they occupied for decades.
Dean said he was also drawn to the area because of the promising business environment in Columbia.
“People are much more friendly and personal. It’s an interesting feeling you get, and I’m ready for that,” he said. “I love Columbia. It is young, somewhat hip, and it’s not backward just because it’s 120 miles from K.C. and St. Louis. People know what’s going on.”
Dean's commitment to the move is clear. He spends anywhere from 12 to 28 hours a week traveling between Columbia and his home in the Kansas City area while working 11-hour days in the store.
One of the most frequent questions he gets, however, is about his intent to remain in the current location.
“This particular space has turned over a lot, but we have a long lease, a good relationship with the mall, and will be here for a long, long time,” Dean said.
He has been relying on word of mouth to market the new location and said business is good.
"Most of the business is kids who currently skate," Dean said. "The other 10 percent haven’t been skating but have come into contact with it at some point and are like ‘Mom and Dad, I want a board.'"
Dean said he has noticed shifting customer attitudes about purchasing a new skateboard as the economy worsens.
“Instead of getting a complete board, people are getting boards spread out over a couple of their parents’ paychecks,” he said.
Most decks — the main wooden part of the skateboard — cost around $49 with grip tape. Complete setups that include the deck, wheels, trucks (metal connections between deck and wheels), bearings and mounting hardware cost anywhere from $100 to $160.
The price of skateboards has changed little over the years at Loma Vista, and Dean said he intends to keep it that way.
“We want the boards affordable," he said. "We keep the prices as low as we can, so if you break it, you can afford to.”
Loma Vista Hardware in the Columbia Mall is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, go to lomavistahardware.com
GlowGolf, Columbia’s new 36-hole miniature golf course, is positioning itself as an attractive option for families looking to save on entertainment expenses.
Tikki Murphy, a GlowGolf manager, said more people are choosing mini-putting over movies and bowling.
A family pass for four — two adults and two children over 12 — costs $29, compared to paying $33 for tickets to a major film release. A pass for two adults and two children under 12 is $28 at GlowGolf.
Bowling for a family of four typically costs $28 (including shoe rental) before 5 p.m. and $33 from 5 to 9 p.m. for a single game, with additional games costing more.
“Families say it is nice because it’s affordable," Murphy said. " A lot of people I know will do date nights here."
Formerly located in Branson, GlowGolf opened a facility May 12 in the Columbia Mall. The indoor putting field has black lights, fluorescent golf balls, putters, course obstacles and both jungle- and underwater-themed artwork on the walls.
“People have been really excited so far,” Murphy said. "We’ve booked a ton of birthday parties and youth groups.”
Fourteen other GlowGolf locations are scattered across the nation, including one in Joplin.
The Columbia Mall GlowGolf, situated across from MC Sports, is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Go to opryglowgolf.com for more information.
Plato’s Closet, 2609 E. Broadway, opened earlier this month with affordable alternatives to retail clothing prices for Columbia shoppers.
It fills a niche for those who want stylish merchandise that costs up to 75 percent less than it would in retail stores, said owner Scott Dyer.
With over 900 franchise-owned and -operated outlets across the country, Plato's Closet pays cash for gently used clothing in current styles. Most is geared to teens, with labels such as Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, Express, Hollister and American Eagle.
“A $50 pair of jeans we would sell for $15,” Dyer said. “Your dollars go much farther here than in a retail store.”
Dyer, who owns two other franchises in the St. Louis area, said the store has purchased more used clothing here than he has witnessed at his other stores in the past.
“Since the economy went south, business has been crazy busy,” Dyer said.
He said a family passing through Columbia stopped by the store and ended up doing their back-to-school shopping there. The family had four girls and needed an inexpensive option for clothes.
Plato’s Closet is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Art of Hair Salon
At a time when loans are hard to come by, Maja Jaszczynska opted to invest all of her savings in her salon, Art of Hair at 518 W. Broadway.
“I put every last penny into this place,” she said.
The salon opened in January and offers services from haircuts and coloring to waxing. A women’s shampoo, cut and style costs $35, and a men’s shampoo, cut and style is $20.
Jaszczynska said Art of Hair was her dream, and she jumped at the opportunity to open her business, despite financial constraints.
“I was looking at a building, and I had ideas of what I should do. I redid everything from the floor to the ceiling,” she said.
She said opening a business during a recession made her more aware of every cost. Each fixture, crown molding and decoration took months of planning and evaluation.
“Being an owner of a salon, I didn’t want to rush into anything and spend money if I wasn’t sure I was going to keep a certain appliance,” she said.
Jaszczynska is also mindful of tight customer budgets. The salon tries to stretch times between appointments in consideration of a client's financial needs. It also offers students a 20 percent discount on haircuts, she said.
She remains confident that clients will still set aside funds to patronize her salon.
“One thing about this industry, regardless of what’s going on with financial problems, this is the place you can come to relax and feel really good,” Jaszczynska said.
Art of Hair is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 9
a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday, noon to 8 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Go to majashair.com for more information.
Abby McNerney took over Girl Boutique in March when store founder Lori Guy moved to Springfield. McNerney is now dealing with all the hurdles of being a new business owner in a rough economy.
She said she was lucky enough to secure a loan because the previous owner had good history and references, but she acknowledges the difficulty of opening a new business right now.
To ensure that the store stays on track financially, the boutique follows a monthly budget based on projected sales goals from the year before. So far, McNerney said she hasn’t faced any challenges in retaining clientele.
The store currently has two locations, one at 1100 Club Village Drive in Columbia and another in Overland Park, Kan., and is securing more franchises across the Midwest.
They carry high-end brands including Michael Kors, Seven For All Mankind and Citizens of Humanity.
McNerney said the boutique is doing its best to cater to shoppers' needs during uncertain economic times.
“We try to keep customers in mind when buying,” she said. “We make sure we carry a lot of jewelry and accessories because they are lower-priced items. People will buy them even when they cannot afford to buy other things.”
Even though shoppers are still engaging in retail therapy, she said they are more cost-conscious now.
“People are more cautious about how much they spend,” McNerney said. “Usually people won’t buy one large purchase.”
Girl Boutique is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, go to shopatgirlboutique.com.