Entrepreneurship in Small Town, USA

NEWTON FALLS, Ohio – Tom Dever was intrigued when he read about the possibility of a missile defense system based at Camp Garfield just outside of Newton Falls. Such a development would open up enormous potential for the small town, and he thought it would be a good idea to get in on the ground floor.

“There was the potential of adding 6,000 soldiers to the area,” Dever says as he leans back on one of the comfortable chairs at RedCon 1, the coffee shop he opened in April along Broad Street in Newton Falls. “So, that’s how this came about.”

Dever, a native of Austin, Texas, retired from the U.S. Army several years ago and opted to move to Newton Falls, where his wife grew up. 

While he understood that landing a nearby missile defense base was a long shot, he quickly discovered that this small community of just fewer than 4,800 residents embraced his venture with open arms.

“If the base opens, it opens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t,” he says with a shrug. “This place is doing fine without it.”

Dever says he’s found a niche that no one else has explored in the town: his coffee shop is specifically decorated and tailored toward veterans. 

“There are a lot of veterans in this community,” he says. “I try to give them something that no one else is doing. If you do that, you’ll always make money, at least enough to make a living.”

Indeed, Dever has found that his decision to set up a business in Newton Falls is already paying off. “When you open in a small town, everyone knows about it,” he says. 

At the start of the 19th century, “the two branches of the Mahoning River provided a good water supply and the falls were used as a power source for grist, flax, woolen, carding and saw mills,” states the Newton Falls Public Library. The Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal passed through on its way from New Castle, Pa., to Akron. 

Were it a larger city such as Youngstown, he says, his message would be swallowed. He’s now looking to add sandwiches and ice cream to the menu.

“To be honest with you, the small town is great. There are plenty of customers here,” Dever says. “In fact, I’m thinking about opening up more of these – only in small towns.”

Newton Falls is a perfect example of how entrepreneurs can make their business work in a small-town environment, says Philip Roundy, professor of entrepreneurship at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. 

Newton Falls, along with Geneva, are two towns in Ohio of similar size that Roundy used as the basis for an academic paper he published last year that examined small-town entrepreneurial ecosystems.

“I was surprised,” Roundy says. “There is an assumption that in order to have a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, you need to be in a big city. Small towns are often overlooked.”

Roundy found that both Newton Falls and Geneva possess sturdy entrepreneurial activity despite the constraints of a small-market economy. “There’s a lot of entrepreneurship that continues to happen and wants to happen,” he says.

Of course, there are drawbacks. Residents of small towns generally have limited amounts of disposable income. As such, it’s important that the community develop a coordinated effort to support and patronize local shops, restaurants and service outlets. “In some towns, many people take a back seat and have no active involvement,” Roundy says. 

It’s also important – in small towns, it’s even imperative – for local businesses to interact with the community, Roundy says. When a local chain, Shopko, moved into Newton Falls, the community embraced its arrival and the company responded by writing a $2,500 check to the local school system. 

Nadia Suzellis manages the Healthy Treasures and the newly opened Bistro on Broad St. in Newton Falls.

“The successful businesses are the ones supported by the community,” he says. 

But even corporate goodwill and public support can go only so far in small towns affected by economic headwinds such as population decline, a plummeting tax base and job loss, Roundy notes. 

The closing of General Motors Co.’s nearby Lordstown plant, for example, is sure to have an impact on small towns such as Newton Falls, he says, and thus affect existing or future business ventures.

There are, however, advantages, Roundy adds. Cost-of-living expenses in Newton Falls and Geneva are well below the national average, while low rents make it much more affordable to start and maintain small businesses there. Depending on the type of business and the ambitions of the business owner, there is often no need to relocate to larger markets, his research shows.

And while plant closings could have a devastating ripple effect on the local economy, they could also provide the impetus for small-town entrepreneurship, Roundy’s paper suggests. Economic necessity, therefore, plays a role in generating small-town entrepreneurial clusters.

He references Chris Brown and his wife, Kelly. The Newton Falls couple accepted buyouts more than a decade ago to leave Delphi Packard in Warren and use the money to start their own business that provides concrete edging for lawns and driveways.

Roundy, who grew up in Alliance, says Newton Falls fit the perfect mold for his study. “It was the perfect size,” he says. 

He decided to add Geneva as a case study after reviewers of his research paper suggested using a second small town for comparison.

Mike Elias, owner of Mike’s Antique Upholstery, has lived in Newton Falls about 10 years. “I’ve been in the business for a long time and people here treat me good,” he says. “I’ve never had a problem of anyone paying me or anything like that.”

Mike Elias opened his upholstery shop, Mike’s Antique Upholstery, a decade ago.

More recently, Healthy Treasures – a health-food store on Broad Street – added a new venture, Bistro on Broad St. to provide seating for customers interested in healthful eating. 

“Some who have never stopped in the store before are coming in for lunch,” says Nadia Suzelis, manager of Healthy Treasures. “We’re kind of out of place here – you’re probably more likely to find a store like us in a larger market like Akron or Cleveland.”

Still, Suzelis sees the new venture as a way to introduce the community to a more healthful diet and lifestyle. “Most of our support comes from out of town, but we’re trying to develop more of a local connection with the shop,” she says.

Small towns also come with their own set of inconveniences, observes RedCon 1’s Dever. In late July, work crews had closed off 100 feet of the main road leading into downtown Newton Falls for bridge repairs, effectively severing the business district from normal traffic. 

“Before that, I was doing way better than my expectations,” he says. “We’re not doing horrible, but I could feel the difference.” He said other local shops are feeling the pinch of the road closing as well, which is to remain under repair until mid-September.

But it hasn’t affected Dever’s plans to move ahead with building his small business in a small town. 

“People think you can’t make money in small towns,” he says. “But you can.”

Pictured: Tom Dever says his coffee shop, Red Con 1, quickly gained the support of Newton Falls residents. 

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.