Politics

October 15, 2012

Off the Trail: Small business owners say candidates are all talk

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Another in a weekly series on what Mainers across the state say about the race for the White House -- and what they want from the next president.

click image to enlarge

John Merrill, owner of Merrill’s Bookshop on Water Street in Hallowell, says he believes his small business will suffer if Mitt Romney is elected president.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Geoff Houghton, who owns The Liberal Cup on Water Street in downtown Hallowell, says he’s a fan of less regulation but doesn’t think that either Romney or Obama has a good grasp on small business.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

HALLOWELL - Geoff Houghton owns The Liberal Cup restaurant and brew pub in Hallowell and the Run of the Mill in Saco. Between the two businesses, he employs about 120 people.

He laughs that he probably pays more different kinds of taxes to more local, state and federal agencies than anyone else in Maine. He pays liquor tax, sales tax, business tax, property tax, excise tax, employment tax, worker's comp. And that's just for his business. He has personal income taxes to pay, as well as property taxes, sales tax and a few others he can't think of off the top of his head.

He's taxed out. But he's not complaining.

"I hate them as much as anyone. But they have to be paid to make things run. I'm more interested that they are spent wisely," said Houghton, 45, who lives in Whitefield.

This election season, with all the focus on taxes and their impact on small businesses, Houghton barely contains his frustration with the presidential candidates.

He says both candidates talk like they know what business folks like him need to succeed. They don't, he says.

"Mitt Romney touts his business principles, but he doesn't know anything about small business. And neither does Obama," he said.

Being in business in a place like Hallowell means being accountable to your friends and neighbors, being a part of the community.

When the Kennebec River overflows its banks, it's about helping folks across the street salvage their inventory. When a business down the block sustains a devastating fire, it's about hosting fundraisers to help them rebuild. It's about participating in a Halloween pub crawl or contributing to an important charity event.

It's certainly not about calculating ways to save on taxes in order to make strategic long-term business decisions. Any decision that Houghton makes about adding or subtracting employees has nothing to do with the taxes he pays. If the outcome of the election saves him money on taxes, he may invest in a piece of equipment or improve his property. But he certainly would not add payroll.

He hires exactly the number of people he needs to run his businesses efficiently. That's what successful small-business people do, he says. Hiring has everything to do with market demand.

"I do not think tax cutting creates jobs. Most small businessmen only hire as many people as they need. Because they pay less taxes, they're not going to create a position. My payroll is exactly what it needs to be," he said. "Why would I create a job I don't need?

During the political season, Houghton treads on neutral turf. He's a registered independent, and is not loyal to either major-party candidate -- and he refuses to say how he intends to vote Nov. 6.

Either way, he figures half his clientele will be disappointed with the outcome and half will be happy. They'll both come to his establishment to celebrate or drown their sorrows. He'll be sympathetic to those who are upset and raise a toast with those who are happy.

He notes the name of his Hallowell business -- the Liberal Cup. His conservative friends chide him for his use of the word "liberal," especially in a place like Hallowell, which is famously left-leaning. Four years ago, Barack Obama won in Hallowell by better than a 2-to-1 margin.

But the name of his business has nothing to do with politics, Houghton says.

The name references the bountiful mugs of beer that he's fond of serving. Being generous with food and drink is the kind of decision that's good for business, he says. That's what keeps people coming back, and that's what keeps his payroll stable and healthy.

From his perch behind the counter at Kennebec Cigar across the street, Tim Giggey also has a pretty good sense of what's good for business: cheap gas and oil.

"What really affects this business is the price of gas and the price of heating oil. The guy who buys a $15 cigar when gas is cheap buys an $8 cigar when gas is $4 a gallon," said Giggey, who lives in town. "The price of crude coming out of the Middle East isn't affected by who's president. It's affected by bankers and big business."

He agrees with Houghton. Neither candidate knows much about small business, and most of the small-business talk is rhetoric.

He plans to vote for Obama. The president inherited a bad economic situation, and has improved it, he says.

Besides, he adds, Romney is unproven and untrustworthy, and doesn't have Giggey's best interest at heart, personally or otherwise.

"That 47 percent thing is too much of a bell to unring," he said.

Walk into Merrill's Bookshop on Water Street, and there's no question where shop owner John Merrill stands politically. He is decidedly left of center. He tapes political cartoons across his bookshelves, and isn't afraid of expressing his opinion.

Merrill has been in business for 22 years. He is known for stocking unusual, rare and scholarly books. His shelves are packed with first editions.

He is the shop's sole employee, and has no plans to hire additional help regardless of the outcome of the election. If Romney wins, Merrill's taxes are going up, he says. And that would be bad for his business and most businesses up and down Water Street.

"The key thing for small businesses like you see in Hallowell is the fact that you need increased consumption," said Merrill, who lives in Augusta. "This is one place where Romney and his team have it absolutely wrong. It's not a question of giving people more money at the top. No one is going to create more jobs unless there are people at the bottom who can afford to buy their products."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes

 

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