Staff Writer

VERO BEACH, Nov. 9, 2003 — For the small seaside businesses, life can be a beach — if the bills get paid.

More and more these days, insurance, property taxes, rent and advertising are taking a bite out of the small-business owner’s profits. Particularly hard hit are the landmark small restaurants, bait and tackle shops and concessionaires in Indian River County.

“My father had his own business and my wife’s father had his own business,” said Dan Culumber, who with his wife, Rose, owns Seaside Grill in Vero Beach Jaycee Park. “We come from that kind of background, we know how to run our business, but he little guy is really getting squeezed.”

The Culumbers estimate they have invested more than $150,000 in capital improvements to the building they rent from the city of Vero Beach, and in return he received a 30-year lease.

Among the improvements made were new roofing, various expansions and plumbing, all improvements that were needed to take it from the old Seaburger restaurant to a modern oceanside diner.

Culumber said he puts up with challenges such as expensive insurance policies, skyrocketing property taxes and advertising costs because of his devotion to his loyal workers and customers as well as the quality of life he gets running his own business.

“I have no set schedule. If I want to go watch my kids in a school performance, I don’t need to get permission,” he said. “But a lot of people couldn’t handle the long hours we put in.”

The Culumbers put in a seven-day week serving breakfast and lunch in the restaurant, but then there are many additional hours that are devoted to such related chores as restocking food and paying bills. The business is constantly on their minds.

“We’ve got workman’s compensation, general liability, flood, wind-store, health insurance, you name it,” said Culumber. “Then, in the summer, there’s a 50 percent cut in business.”

In addition to insurance, Culumber has a rent of 13 percent of his gross take, plus $600 a month that he pays to the city.

Seasonal Impact

Penny Chandler, executive director of the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce, said small businesses in the area have to endure a slow season along with the busy times that bring in the bulk of the annual revenue.

“Here in the Indian River County community, while small business and large businesses especially along the waterfront, feel the positive impacts of the tourism economy, they also are impacted by the fees, the taxes, the insurance costs and everything else that goes with the luxury of being on the water,” she said.

Luckily, Culumber said, he has a faithful group of regular part-time residents and word of mouth is still his biggest advantage.

Bigger barriers

Terry and Steve Parsons, owners of Wabasso Tackle Shop on US 1 and County Road 510, said when they started their business 25 years ago, things were dramatically different for small business owners.

“After we bought the building it came time for me to draw up the plans for what I had in mind for the tackle shop,” Steve Parsons said. “It was just a drawing on a piece of paper. I brought it in to the city and he looked at it for a couple of seconds and said, ‘Looks good to me,’ and he signed off on it. It doesn’t happen like that today.”

His brother, Terry said it’s critical that business owners see that their dreams will survive for the long term in order to keep going through the rough times.

“It’s hard to get into a commercial situation that has a future,” Terry said. “If you rent, whoever owns the property takes your hard work. And if you can’t connect up with the future, it’s really tough.”

The brothers said the no-frills store — it has no air conditioning or fancy computer inventory system — was built up over the years.

“It’s not challenging now but 25 years ago it was,” Steve Parsons said. “By now the business has become situation where it runs itself. We still have insurance to pay, but the business runs itself.”

A Different Style

Alan and Nancy French, concession operators for Sebastian Inlet State Park — which includes the Inlet Marina and the Sebastian Inlet Eatery — have a different situation from the typical waterside business owner.

“Basically we have a concession contract with the state ant that goes another five years,” said Alan French a “Baby Boomer” who plans to retire after that.

French said his biggest problem isn’t rent or insurance but the weather.

“I have to worry if someone eats a bad hot dog or they trip, just like anyone else,” he said. “But if it rains for more than a few days, no one is renting boats, surfboards or boogie boards. They’re not going camping or walking around.”

French estimated his business has grown 5 percent annually in the 11 years he has been running the concessions. He attributed that to population growth.

“I think we’re just about the last of the mom-and-pop businesses,” he said. “I think that’s because the area has grown so much, there’s an ever-increasing demand for more intense services.”