Route 9 businesses cautiously optimistic on economy

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The payroll tax increase has been hard to swallow. The job market is still up and down. But businesses along Route 9 between Southborough and Shrewsbury are sounding a note of cautious optimism following the gloom of the Great Recession.

Gathered for the Corridor Nine Area Chamber of Commerce’s “Open for Business Expo’’ in Westborough last week, exhibitors said their fortunes were improving following a sluggish recovery.

“People are cautious, and that’s expected,” said chamber president Barbara Clifford, who noted that business leaders seemed more optimistic than a year ago.

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Clifford said she wants state government to recognize the needs of small businesses. She said she supports the governor’s proposal for improving transportation, but was cautious about raising taxes, including a proposed increase in the state’s income tax, in order to pay for it.

“We all know what we felt after the federal payroll tax increase,” she said, referring to the change that took effect at the start of January to help fund Social Security. “We all looked at our paychecks and asked, ‘Is this a mistake?’ ”

Governor Deval Patrick’s proposal to expand the reach of the sales tax — even at a lower rate of 4.5 percent — to cover Internet technology services alarmed Clifford, who said it could make burgeoning companies along the Route 9 corridor think twice before hiring more people.

Adam Winter, who founded SwiftecIT Inc. in Shrewsbury nine years ago, said his business would almost certainly be affected by the proposed technology services tax.

Winter wants badly to hire in order to continue to expand his business, but said he’s had a hard time finding the talent.

“You used to be able to do one job, and get a lot of money for just that one job,” Winter said. The employees he’s looking for, however, need a wider array of skills, and need to keep up with the latest software.

Kuo-Rung Tang has owned Cheng Du, an Asian restaurant in Westborough, since 1981, and has seen a lot of businesses come and go in 30 years.

“The economy’s been very tough. In Westborough, I think back to the 1990s, when a lot of the tech companies started moving out. Only EMC’s still here,” he said.

As the tech companies moved out, so did the employees that constituted a large chunk of his customer base. He said he and his wife, rather than leaving the area, decided to expand the business. They hired a Rhode Island company to help with the renovations, which included a new wine bar. Today, they are hiring again, Tang said.

“It’s something we love,” he said. “We love food, we love wine,” he said, adding that business is “definitely” better compared with four years ago.

Tang said he’s seen the Route 9 corridor shift from light manufacturing to a service- and retail-based economy. He noted that restaurants seem to be everywhere. “Another day, there’s another restaurant popping up,” he said.

To keep afloat, Chang said, he will need other businesses to do well, and shore up his customer base. Westborough has the infrastructure to support businesses, Tang said, and a shift toward a more business-friendly attitude in town government has also been helpful.

That sentiment was echoed by Clifford, who said she has seen municipal economic development committees sprout up in many communities, and has taken that as a positive sign. “The towns are much more responsive to businesses’ needs,” she said.

Selectmen in Southborough, for example, created an economic development panel in January. That’s in addition to a private team of Southborough business leaders, according to town planner Eric Denoncourt. who acknowledged that economic growth in the area is “fairly slow.”

“Regionally, development came to a standstill in 2008, 2009,” he said, but has since picked up.

Denoncourt pointed to a 140-unit apartment complex under construction in Southborough as an indicator the economy is turning a corner.

Merve Weich may be best known for founding BJ’s Wholesale Club, but today he mentors small-business entrepreneurs. Weich said that the federal government, not state or local governments, is one of the biggest obstacles to economic growth.

“Businesses are going to be holding on to their money, and waiting to see what happens in Washington before they go out and start hiring,” Weich said.

Clifford, the chamber’s president, also said inaction by Congress is hindering economic growth.

“The gridlock is definitely hampering everyone from moving forward,” Clifford said. “People are sick of it. For the economy to get a lot better, that’s one of the things that has to improve.”

Clifford said small operations make up more than 80 percent of businesses in Massachusetts, and when these enterprises are afraid to move forward, it holds everyone back.

“We need to have that comfort level, that things will not turn sour,” Clifford said.

On April 3, the same day as the Corridor Nine expo, JetBlue’s chief executive arrived at Worcester Regional Airport to announce that the airline would, starting in November, provide daily flights to Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. For Worcester Airport Limousine managerureen Raillo, it was another sign that the local economy is on the mend.

“People are flying again,” Raillo said. “We have seen an uptick in business every year for the past four years on the books. We just did our number for March, and I am pleased in how it’s up from last year. . .  It’s going to help the economy in the area in general. It gets people excited, that they can do business here and really make it.”

Clifford said that in 2007 the chamber’s membership stood at 750. Today, the number is closer to 600, officials said; which businesses survive often depends on the industry, with health care and technology sectors performing best.

“We have members that are thriving, and then we have members who are seeing a slow uptick,” said Karen Chapman, the chamber’s vice president.

“We’re still out there, we’re surviving. And people want to do business in this region.”

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