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“We’re not going away.” Small business lobby makes its case to state lawmakers

Nicole and William Green at the state capitol Monday. Photo by Robert Chappell.

William Green thought movies in the backyard sounded like a pretty fun idea.

“I was online and saw this whole concept of theater in your backyard, so I purchased it,” he said. “And then when we got it, I didn’t know how to work the dang thing.”

A couple hours of sweat and frustration later, though, it was up and running – and shortly thereafter, the neighbors were asking to borrow it. 

Then four years ago, Green lost his job in higher education and turned lemons into lemonade. If the neighbors were asking to borrow the backyard theater, he reasoned, maybe others would pay to rent it. He and his wife Nicole launched Fox City Flix in 2019.

When the pandemic closed down movie theaters, the Greens saw a new opportunity in an old-school concept: the drive in.

“We had to learn the technology, we had to train our staff, we had to just reinvent ourselves,” he said, adding that he even had to learn FCC regulations about broadcasting movie sound on FM radio. But learn they did, and it worked.

“We needed to evolve to stay competitive, to stay positive,” said Nicole Green, who serves as the company’s chief financial officer.

Now they have a variety of screens available for rent, with sizes ranging from eight to 33 feet across, along with the accompanying projection and sound systems. They serve anyone in a 15-mile radius of their headquarters in Neenah, with a premium charged for events farther away. They do birthday parties, holiday parties, football game watch parties – a wide variety of events. They’re looking to evolve further, working up to buying an LED truck that would allow them to host daytime events as well.

Nicole and William Green were among about 65 small business owners from around the state visiting the state Capitol on Monday to talk with their elected representatives about what small businesses need. The day of action was the first of its kind put together by the Wisconsin chapter of the Main Street Alliance.

“I was really thrilled (that) we had representation from all corners of the state from the Driftless up to the Milwaukee area to the Fox Valley to Wausau,” said Main Street Alliance Midwest Director Shawn Phetteplace.

The 65 business owners in attendance had 57 meetings, Phetteplace said, with their local legislators as well as Lt. Gov. Sarah Rodriguez and the staff of Attorney General Joshua Kaul.

Main Street Alliance is about 10 years old, with the Wisconsin chapter just launching in August 2020. Phetteplace said a relatively new organization getting that many meetings with elected officials on their first visit to the capitol was encouraging.

“I think that having the small business voice at the table with decision makers, it’s just become even more apparent how important that is,” he said.

Phetteplace noted that the corporate lobby has wielded influence in the halls of power for decades, but the small business voice is equally important – but comes from a different perspective.

“We like to make our case based on the facts,” he said. “They like to make their case based on rhetoric and ideology.”

He said the Main Street Alliance is advocating for a relatively limited number of specific policies, including funding for child care access, paid medical leave and Badgercare expansion.

He said lack of affordable health insurance hinders innovation and entrepreneurship.

“There’s a tremendous amount of small business owners who are just completely uninsured. Then there’s also staff that need that coverage,” he said. “There are people who stay at a job and don’t start a business because they’re worried about losing their health insurance. There’s folks who do a nine to five, at the same time as doing a side hustle small business that they’re passionate about. That’s no way to live.”

The Greens spoke with their Assembly and Senate representatives specifically about child care support. The folks they hire to set up their rentals are independent contractors for now, but support for child care and Badgercare expansion would help them hire full-time employees, they said.

They also advocated for more and easier access to capital.

“I thoroughly understand that the business training programs and technical assistance are very important to business owners,” Green said, referencing existing state support systems for small businesses. “But we can’t underestimate the (importance of) capital and the investment into the people and their dreams. We will be learning all these different technical things, but then when it comes to actually breathing life into those things, it takes resources.”