Madison small business owners outline challenges

Dan Geurra and Sen. Melissa Agard. Photo by Omar Waheed.

Small businesses came together to voice issues they see as entrepreneurs to State Senator Melissa Agard as she continues to campaign for County Executive.

On June 6, a group of small business owners came to StartingBlock, 821 E. Washington Ave., a startup hub, to express difficulties they see as entrepreneurs in greater Madison. The group met with Senator Agard as she sought out what issues they saw from childcare, economic development, transportation and retail space.

Dan Guerra Jr., local entrepreneur and former CEO of Altus Inc., a company that supports startups, moderated the event. He said that in his time working with entrepreneurs, finding childcare has been a large hurdle to overcome.

“Pretty much every business out there wants good hard working people to come to work. There’s a workforce shortage in our community. But when you punch the numbers (related to childcare expense), it just didn’t make sense (to work),” Agard said.

Childcare and its costs have been a continuous issue around the country due to its lack of access and affordability. Senator Agard emphasized the low wages leading to a ripple effect on businesses all over.

Attendees recounted their own experiences and anecdotes from friends. A couple business owners made decisions within their family to go the at-homecare route with one parent staying behind while the other worked. They noted that the other spouse’s earnings are mostly equal to the cost of childcare already, so it wouldn’t make sense to make that financial commitment.

Several business owners also pointed to lack of accessible and affordable retail or office space as another barrier.

Cle Gray, owner of Prodigal Building Systems, found himself seeking spaces outside of Madison. He points at the huge difference in cost between leasing space in Madison, where his company has a suite, and Milwaukee and Morrisonsville, where Prodigal Systems has manufacturing and office spaces.

Cle Gray. Photo by Omar Waheed.

“When we started looking for space, one of the reasons why we didn’t put our manufacturing space in the Madison area is because it was cost prohibitive,” Gray said. “I can build a building for less than I would lease for a year.”

Gray said that companies are noticing the steep costs in being in Madison and moving to other cities and counties. This has led to an increase in leasing space in places like Columbia County, he said.

Simple Cuts Salon’s co-owner Audrea Booker, who opened a new space on East Washington Avenue yesterday, would like to see more cooperative workspaces to sell products.

“People make products at home. They have a good following, but they can’t afford a retail place. They can’t afford to be there all day, seven days a week,” Booker said.

Madison lacks cooperative retail spaces, some participants said. Milwaukee is home to a few, including notable spaces such as The Bronzeville Collective MKE, which partners with local BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ business to sell their goods.

The groups noted the increase of online and hybrid work arrangements leading to a decline in retail spaces and an increase in online shopping. They are hopeful that the Bus Rapid Transit System will lead to more people coming out back to stores.