APEX — Mack Thorpe, co-owner of The Rusty Bucket, would like to expand the antiques store that he and his wife own along the bustling North Salem Street, but not in this uncertain economic environment.
"The small business person is very concerned," said Thorpe, 57, standing behind a vintage cash register.
"It makes no difference for any of these business folks downtown here whether they are Democratic or Republican," said Thorpe. "It is the indecisiveness and the lack of willingness to work together for our good as a nation to provide jobs."
The frustration on Main Street - which in Apex is actually North Salem Street - was evident Tuesday, as this town prepared for a brief visit this morning by President Barack Obama. The president will stop at the WestStar Precision manufacturing plant in Apex before heading to a rally at Reynolds Coliseum at N.C. State University to plug his jobs proposal.
North Carolina is suffering from an unemployment rate of 10.1 percent, which is above the national average.
Obama is coming into the Triangle, where the economic slump has been milder than elsewhere in the country and people know it and are grateful. Businesses may be struggling, but the storefronts along North Salem Street are filled.
And interviews along the main drag Tuesday reflect more of a sense of optimism than is found elsewhere in the state, where a poll taken by Magellan Strategies last week found that 70 percent of Tar Heel residents thought the country was headed in the wrong direction and only 23 percent thought it was headed in the right direction.
Rocky LaRusso, 50, who owns a remodeling business, says he has three months of work lined up. He said his business was very slow in 2009 and 2010 but began picking up in summer a year ago.
"I'm not buying the gloom-and-doom thing," LaRusso said.
Debbie Cash, 45, owner of All Booked Up, a used book store, said business is booming. But she notes that it is because two Borders book chain stores in Cary and Apex recently closed and people are looking for less expensive books in these times.
But business owners say it has been a struggle.
After working for an engineering firm for 15 years, Apex resident Jeff Roach started his own company, Peak Engineering & Design, in 2008.
Roach said launching his company in the middle of a severe economic downturn forced him to focus relentlessly on marketing and identifying potential clients. He has since hired two employees and moved from a home office to leased space on Center Street in Apex.
"I am at that crossroads with a small company about needing staff now but being leery about adding anybody because of the uncertainty," Roach, 40, said. "In our market it's one of those things that you don't know what's going to happen three months from now let alone two years from now."
Given that most new construction projects can take 12 months or longer, Roach's clients want to be sure demand will be there for whatever they're building. Right now that's just not the case for most projects.
"The clients that we're dealing with that are looking at new development have no idea where the economy is going, and they're scared to death to do anything," he said.
Juliet Malit sees the same level of uncertainty among the health care workers she is trying to find jobs for. After working as a school teacher for 33 years, Malit retired last year and launched her own Apex staffing firm, JFM Staffing.
She mostly works with home health care agencies, where many of the positions lack health insurance.
"Wages are low, and then they cut the benefits," she said.
Earlier this week, Malit was on the Raleigh campus of ECPI University looking for licensed practical nurses. Every three months ECPI graduates a new batch of health care workers.
"It's just tough for everybody," she said.
The president's stop
Obama will visit one business that is growing.
Erv Portman, a Democratic Wake County commissioner, the owner of WestStar Precision, said his office was contacted last week by the Small Business Administration, which asked whether he would make his plant available for a presidential visit.
Portman said his Apex plant, which does contract manufacturing for aircraft interior, aircraft structures, medical devices and alternative energy devices, has grown from 14 to 24 employees since last year, adding a second shift. He said he had not received any SBA loans or federal stimulus grants. He started the company in 1996.
His company has also operated a plant in San Jose Costa Rica since 2000, which he said has about 24 employees.
"Since we opened the plant in Costa Rica, we have tripled our employment in North Carolina and quadrupled our investment in North Carolina," Portman said.
Portman said he did not know whether his company would directly benefit from the latest Obama program, because it has already gone through a hiring spurt.
He said he hoped the president's takeaway from the visit would be the need for fair trade laws that would allow U.S. companies to compete globally, and for SBA financing for small businesses, and tax incentives on investments on new machinery.
"After two, three tough years, small business needs a little bit of help in terms of getting out of the recession and getting back into growth," Portman said.
'Hard cold reality'
The country is now facing the prospect of economic growth of between 1.5 percent and 2 percent annually for the next several years, which is not fast enough to significantly bring down the unemployment rate, Wells Fargo senior economist Mark Vitner said.
"That's kind of the hard cold reality," he said. "There really hasn't been much evidence of a recovery. It's hard to find many areas that have gotten better."
Vitner said Obama's jobs proposal, even if it does pass, includes a number of temporary tax cuts that have done little to boost demand in the past.
"There's not a lot of good choices," Vitner said. "But we need to find a way to stimulate the economy that's effective and still allows us to reduce the budget deficit over the intermediary term. And that's not easy."
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