With front page news of a sinking economy, many Livingston businesses are feeling the effects of a slowdown in consumer spending. Across the country, business owners are having to tweak business plans, realign marketing strategies and come up with innovative ideas to keep doors open during what appears to be a fairly severe global economic downturn.
As the original gateway to Yellowstone National Park, Livingston has historically hosted tourists to America’s western wonderland, and in recent years the Park has seen record visitation numbers. Many local business owners have expressed frustration over the years at their ability to draw tourists in from the highway before the turn-off to the Park, but the tourism industry in the small town remains strong.
Many entrepreneurs and shops in town have also realized a trend of buying, selling and providing services to the Park county population in a symbiotic circle. “Buy Local” campaigns are nothing new to the area, but now much of the business atmosphere revolves around businesses working together to find economic security, rather than the traditional competitive business model.
Whether creating new strategies for customer service in the tourism industry, turning novel ideas or talents into successful enterprises, or fostering the culture of the community, many businesses, organizations and individuals are reporting plenty of good news for the local economy as new businesses continue to sprout and grow in Livingston.
Light Industry: Guthrie Lane
Angela Devine started her unassuming business in an outbuilding on her Park county property.
Devine had been sewing custom-made clothing and accessories for children as a hobby when she sent one of her pieces as a gift to the eastern seaboard. Word-of-mouth spread and soon she was supplying Sweet William children’s clothing store in Brooklyn with one-of-kind garments for infants and young children.
“It’s now built up from one-of-a-kind pieces to making an exclusive collection for the store,” says Devine. Sweet William recently expanded and opened an additional shop in Manhattan in New York City.
Devine named the clothing line “Guthrie Lane” for her daughter and now supplies the two New York City clothing shops with full seasonal collections.
Devine grew up on the Double Arrow Ranch in Bone, Idaho and is now raising a family of three children in the Livingston area. She says she wanted to make clothes here in Livingston and in America.
“I was taught to sew through family and friends. My business is really home-spun so to send garments to be made by slave labor seems really weird to me,” says Devine.
Devine recently moved the operations from her property to a downtown storefront location at 109 East Lewis Street. She says although it can be a challenge, she maintains her business solely on cash flow, making money and products as she continues to operate and grow.
Guthrie Lane currently employs two full-time seamstresses and a sales associate to help promote the line to new shops.
The clothing itself is a study in re-use and thrift. Devine displays a skirt with a design known as “scrap garden,” a garment that has lasted through two or three children. “We strive for minimum waste,” she says, while stressing the durability of the hand-made item.
Devine says she initially started making clothing by using vintage fabrics but since larger-scale operations have been established, she has to find continuous yardage
“I’m a fabric hoarder,” says Devine, adding that she also utilizes every fabric store locally including Thumbelina and Back Porch Quilts.
“We’re all trying to keep each other in business,” says Devine. She says she also tries to get American-based fabrics whenever possible.
“When I’m a millionaire, I’m going to have a textile plant,” she jokes. Devine says Guthrie Lane will continue to produce some vintage items but indicates she would love to also remake older designs or re-use fabrics and patterns from the past.
People are willing to spend a little more for clothing that can last through two or three children, she says, and the clothing line is extraordinarily hand-crafted and unique, with each piece designed to endure through potential generations of active bodies.
Although the Lewis Street sewing shop and Guthrie Lane headquarters are primarily staffed by production sewers, Devine says she looks forward to having their doors open in the future to passerby.
“I always wanted to participate in the downtown small town shopping experience,” Devine adds, noting she would like to keep up a storefront throughout the summer season.
Currently in downtown Livingston, The Drawing Room at 117 East Callender Street carries selections from the Guthrie Lane line. Devine also plans to bring Guthrie Lane seamstresses to the Farmer’s Market and offer patchwork services for jeans and jackets every Wednesday afternoon through September. She will be donating the Farmer’s Market proceeds to help local arts programs.
Devine says the business will be launching a website in June, but right now they are focusing on making the product, sending it to market and getting paid. If the one-of-a-kind pieces could be made cheaper, says Devine, they could sell the line in more stores. But she is insistent on maintaining the quality and integrity of the pieces.
“No one sews anymore,” she explains, “So they have no idea how much time it takes to make something.”
The “small shop factory line” on East Lewis is one example of many cottage industries that have expanded during the economic downturn as integrity in products becomes more highly valued by a shoppers with less expendable income and a desire for high quality.
Devine says she sees no limit to the opportunities for promoting her business: “To continue and expand I’m going to have to hire more help. I would love to have more people in here making clothes and incomes.”
New Media Marketing: H and H Web
H and H Web founders Chieko Horn and Angela Hiatt have a hard sell in the small town of Livingston convincing local clients to step up their presence on the internet.
As self-described social media marketing experts, the pair note challenges in imparting the importance of new media to clients used to traditional advertising and marketing methods. Over the last year and a half, however, they say continued success for their clients is driving their business.
“When we first started, we saw that many local businesses were missing the boat for the social media thing. We both have so many ideas about the industry, so instead of criticizing, we decided to start a business to educate, change the perspective and capitalize off of it,” says Horn.
Hiatt notes the business got its initial break when web and graphic designer Lynn Weaver referred Livingston businessman Dan Caul and two established Livingston businesses, The Murray Hotel and Truex and to H and H Web for a social media marketing consultation. Soon, the pair were designing content for blogs and Facebook networking accounts and posting regular updates.
“Dan Caul is all about staying in the game,” says Horn. He also brought in the H and H Web duo to work on a new “Livingston Buy Local” campaign. Caul was open to all recommendations, Horn says, which initially helped promote The Murray and Truex with social media and marketing online locally and to connect the businesses with the rest of the world with ease.
Horn said H and H Web looked at the business and what the hotel was doing marketing-wise to create and provide a comprehensive online new media marketing plan. H and H Web incorporated blogs and Facebook sites and The Murray Hotel soon went from a handful of fans on Facebook to over 1,000 fans from across the world in less than a year,. Hiatt explains many customers are eager to check in on Facebook before a visit to get the latest on Livingston or Murray Hotel news.
“Tourism-based businesses have to have a presence on these sites [like Facebook] or a competitor will,” says Horn. Being connected to customers constantly also increases customer service abilities for businesses, adds Hiatt, who indicates H and H Web helps to guide clients to utilize both the marketing and service aspects of social media.
“Facebook has wonderful insights to track website visits,” says Hiatt, indicating the some of the extensive instant market analysis now available online allowing clients to see who is looking at their business, where they are, and what their other interests are.
Both Hiatt and Horn agree that “Livingston loves Facebook.” In the small town the social media networking site has about 1,500 active users, they estimate, and all of the users are interested in talking about what’s going on around the city. The number of users has most likely tripled from a year ago as the site continues grow and become a successful communication tool for individuals and businesses alike.
“Facebook is unbelievably innovative,” says Hiatt. Horn adds she sees only a rise in popularity for the site and its many applications, “It has connected the world and made the world such a smaller space and people have grown attached to that.”
Both partners credit backgrounds in media arts for their success. Horn is a photographer and graphic designer and Hiatt has a journalism degree along with years of technical training in social media.
The talents of their team enable them to provide all graphic and content services in-house and avoid farming out work for websites, social media sites or blogs. H and H Web provides full maintenance services for implementation of social media and also training and initial setup of services for businesses.
Among the dozen or so current clients are also non-localized businesses, such as Wholesale Girls and Little Girl Mart, a girls’ accessory supplier based out of a local warehouse on Highway 89. The client employs approximately six people locally yet has no storefront in the area, instead they are doing all business through e-commerce.
“Before the advent of social media, non-localized business was not as possible,” says Horn. Now businesses like Wholesale Girls can operate outside of the local economy but provide—through sites such as Facebook and Twitter—the same instant service one would expect from a traditional shop and sales staff.
Horn and Hiatt have hosted a number of free seminars on social media and marketing and are currently preparing for a presentation at the 2011 Women to Women Conference in Bozeman on May 19. They will also be partnering with Prospera Business Network to present a free seminar on advanced social media marketing in the next year covering topics “beyond Social Media 101,” says Horn.
Every Friday, the business also holds a “Scoial Media Socializing Group” at 8:30 a.m. at Montana Cup on Park Street, a meeting which is free to the public.
In the past year of operations, the partners agree the business has grown at a healthy pace. “We’re very excited about where it’s headed,” says Hiatt.
H and H Web also maintains the Livingston Buy Local campaign online with a community blog and Facebook presence. Even in small communities like Livingston, “Social media can be community-driven,” says Horn. The campaign not only encourages making purchases locally, but encourages conversations between business owners as well.
Although many “buy local” campaigns have kicked off in the past decades in the Park county area, the current campaign should be self-perpetuating through community efforts on the livingstonbuylocal.com website, blog and Facebook site, says Hiatt. All local businesses are welcome to a free listing in the Livingston Buy Local directory, and may submit information via a link on the Livingston Buy Local website.
As the Livingston community faces a larger-scale continuing global and national economic downturn, Horn says local consumers purchasing from local businesses will help sustain the immediate economy.
“Businesses should also pay attention to the needs of customers,” Horn adds, citing a recent article which studied the secrets of economic success in thriving small towns across America. In the most successful small towns, business owners had listened to their customers and tried to provide exactly what they needed, whether it was products, services, or even hours of operation.
Both partners at H and H Web share a positive outlook for Livingston’s economic future.
“Livingston has a great mix of innovative thinkers who are really dedicated to this town,” says Hiatt, “A lot of people have really good ideas.”
“A lot of businesses also give a ton of money back to the community, which is a good sign,” says Horn.
Hiatt, a Livingston native, says she saw renewed youth and vibrance in her hometown upon returning a few years ago. “The Livingston I grew up in is vastly different from the one I know now. I am so refreshed upon returning.”
Armchair Traveler: GoLivingston.com
“Livingston is such an incredible community with just the right mix: lots of outdoor recreating, a vibrant arts scene, rich history, and a distinct, low-key vibe. I wanted to share the magic of Livingston with a broader audience in an effort to promote tourism business in the area,” says graphic designer and locally-based artist Brad Bunkers, the force behind the online travel site GoLivingston.com.
A large majority of travelers use the internet and mobile devices to plan vacations and Bunkers said he launched GoLivingston.com about a year ago as an “online travel magazine for web-savvy tourists.”
GoLivingston.com is solely dedicated to promoting tourism in Livingston and features local businesses and activities such as fly fishing and white water rafting in ever-expanding travel stories grouped into categories of seasons and outdoor adventure. The most popular stories are tagged on the site and links are available to local authors, activities and businesses.
The site also offers free business listings, a section that appears to be growing continually as local shops and services add information. There is also access to exclusive travel discounts via an email subscription service.
Although the site is fairly new, it has the potential to not only be a comprehensive travel guide but also provide a preview of Livingston’s culture on the street to prospective tourists.
“I like to think we plug in travelers to Livingston before they even set foot in Montana,” says Bunkers.
Although Bunkers says GoLivingston.com started as a side project evolving over time, he has brought in other team members from his Bunkers Art + Design company to help maintain the site.
Bunkers says he is not alone in his approach to creativity and entrepreneurial spirit: “I see so many small business owners in Livingston who have taken an idea and made it into a successful business,” says Bunkers, “It takes a lot of creativity, some luck and a ton of hard work.”
Bunkers says although he may consider himself an optimist, he thinks the economy in the area is steadily recovering and will continue to grow at a moderate pace.
“It felt like we were on the verge of a housing boom a few years back and I think the downturn may have been a blessing in disguise,” he says, “We avoided a major bust and we are now moving forward at a realistic pace.”
Destination Book Shop: Elk River Books
Commitment to culture and the arts is welcome and almost commonplace in new businesses springing up in Livingston.
When writer Andrea Peacock was in the process of moving her family’s household a running joke with cousin Marc Beaudin was: “We have so many books we should open a bookstore.” Eventually the joke became reality as Beaudin and Peacock began assembling volumes for the new Elk River Books due to open May 24, 2011 at 115 East Callender.
The decision to open a used bookstore was a consideration between the pair for some time, says Peacock.
“Especially in this community of great writers and educated readers,” adds Beaudin.
Both are published writers and avid readers and Beaudin also has strong connections with poetry and drama as a poet and director.
Peacock spent the past winter in Arizona while Beaudin spent time in Michigan and while away both scoured garage sales, thrift stores and even friend’s basement and attic collections for unique books.
“The process has been a treasure hunt,” says Peacock.
Among the unique finds to be featured in the store is a series of Tarzan books originally owned by Beaudin’s uncle, passed down to his cousin, and then to him, and then given as a gift to Beaudin’s father.
“After my dad’s passing, the books returned to me. I’m excited about the day someone comes in and says, ‘I remember these from when I was a kid!’ And they’re thrilled to take them home,” says Beaudin.
Along with a high-quality used book selection featuring hand-picked fiction from regional and well-known authors, western history, outdoor themes, arts, poetry, drama, and wine books and cookbooks, Peacock says she hopes the shop will also provide a gathering place for the community.
Elk River Books plans to host regular readings and events a few times a month, the first being a reading with Montana author Rick Bass May 26 for the grand opening of the store.
Bass recently co-authored “Heart of the Monster” with David James Duncan. The book explores the economic and environmental impacts of hauling mega-load mining equipment through Montana.
The scheduled reading with Bass will be held next door to the book shop at the Blue Slipper Theatre. Author Doug Peacock will also be on hand to introduce Bass, and Park County Environmental Council Director Kerry Fee will deliver a presentation on the local impact of mega-load hauling in Park county.
Scheduled events also include the celebration of “Bloomsday” June 16, a tribute to the life and writing of James Joyce, and a reading with poet James Crissman June 24 during the first downtown Art Walk of the season.
Beaudin indicates Elk River Books will both utilize and support activities at the adjacent Blue Slipper Theatre, using the larger theatre space for readings and opening the bookshop for tea and coffee during theatre show intermissions.
“We hope to connect these two cultural spaces,” says Beaudin, “We also hope to connect with other bookstores to create a destination district downtown.”
“We support anything that helps make Livingston a strong, self-sufficient community,” adds Peacock.
The basis of the book shop is a commitment to reuse of materials, “things that still have life in them,” she says.
The book shop will also feature locally-sourced materials, selling books from local authors on consignment.
By selling and trading inexpensive goods, Peacock says she hopes Elk River Books can be part of positive growth in the community in coming years.
“It seems like there are a lot of exciting things happening here,” says Beaudin of the economic environment in Livingston, “I’ve been here the past three years and compared to cities in Michigan, it’s a really vibrant town...this is a town full of people who love local arts events and want to be a part of them. People here understand culture and economy.”
Peacock notes many positive signs of growth continuing in the community. “The local food movement is pretty strong,” says Peacock, “Along with the City of Livingston parks plan, and the Northside Park and Soccer Fields project. People invest in these aspects of the community that feed our souls and feed our bodies and it’s a good indication of what we can do.”
The new book shop will feature a coffee and tea lounge with free wifi where patrons can enjoy a fresh book or chat with other readers. Peacock says a community bulletin board will be available for postings and the shop will also feature a number of local and regional literary, outdoors and gardening magazines. Book bags will be available for purchase, and customers may return with the re-usable bag each visit for 10 percent off books.
Downtown Livingston continues to thrive with very few storefronts empty and most local businesses happy to share street space with new enterprises. Although two bookstores, Sax and Fryer and Conley’s Books will be located around the corner, Beaudin again stresses the benefits of supplementing and supporting the other businesses to create an atmosphere of camaraderie and not competition.
“Things will always change,” says Peacock, ”If we work at it, we can push the community in the way we want it to go.”
The Economy of Culture
“Arts and Culture is a huge growth industry in Park county,” says Laura Bray, owner of the downtown gallery The Frame Garden and a leading member of The Livingston Gallery Association and the Urban Renewal Agency.
Bray estimates there are over 400 full-time arts positions in Park county and predicts the growth of many more in a variety of arts and culture fields. At present, she projects nearly $5 million to $6 million dollars in annual revenues from the arts industry in the county, indicating it is one of the largest industries in the county.
Bray is working on a committee affiliated with the Urban Renewal Agency, Vision Livingston and the Livingston Gallery Association to place artwork outdoors throughout the city in the next year.
The “Street Arts” project will integrate artwork from local and regional artists into the streetscape of downtown Livingston and the surrounding area.
Although the project is still in final planning stages, Bray indicates the committee hopes to have some of the first works of art in place by a June target date.
Encouraging commerce alongside the celebration of culture is the focus of the monthly downtown Art Walks sponsored by the Gallery Association on the last Friday of each month during the summer season.
Bray says the Gallery Association has agreed to extend later Art Walk hours to every Friday during the summer, and says she hopes local businesses will follow suit and also keep their doors open late on Friday evenings through September.
Cultural traditions are revered in Livingston, whether it be the artistic atmosphere of the Friday night Art Walks or the annual family musical experience of Summerfest. Both events draw regional visitors to the town as well as provide affordable entertainment for locals.
New Livingston Summerfest director Gar Sanders considered the local approach to creating a successful music festival on the banks of the Yellowstone River this July after taking the reins from former director Kan Kastelitz.
“Ken set up a terrific infrastructure,” Sanders says, “We’re just picking up where he left off.”
Local favorites Six Strings Down will kickoff the three-day event, which will feature an entire Friday night of Livingston music—including The Fossils and The Max on the same stage.
Saturday’s line-up includes family music headliners the Buck Ram Platters, a professional Beach Boys cover band and Bozeman artists The Clintons. Sunday features a cowboy performer in the Will Rogers style, Cold Hard Cash, and country artists Confederate Railroad. By designing a festival with local flavor, Sanders says Summerfest can support favorite local musicians while drawing a regional crowd.
The ticket price for three days is modest, just $20, and the July 15 event takes place in an open-air Sacajawea park along the Yellowstone Friday, Saturday and Sunday. With past attendance numbers at nearly 10,000 people in attendance, Sanders says he hopes to create a more regional draw from Bozeman this year by bringing in Bozeman headliner The Clintons.
“We can promote the event to appeal to Bozeman instead of compete with them,” says Sanders. Local and regional vendors will also have an opportunity to showcase their products at the event.
Sanders says he hopes to work with downtown businesses in the future to create more of a partnership with Summerfest and downtown Livingston.
“There has been some talk that Summerfest does little for the downtown businesses, but we’d like to improve that and even integrate a kick-off event downtown in the future,” says Sanders.
More information about Summerfest is available on the City of Livingston website under events.
Local Contractor Networking:
The Yellowstone Connection
While arts and culture provide a backdrop of entertainment and a continuing successful and growing light industry in Livingston, many local professionals in business over decades are finding creative solutions to marketing their businesses, improving service to the community and working together to encourage positive growth.
A partnership of 11 local service professionals recently formed The Yellowstone Connection, an organized affiliation of contractors committed to certified work and working together to increase local referrals.
Guy Olson of the participating member Greybeal’s All Service says many local customers often contact Bozeman contractors for work that can be done by local individuals and companies. By forming The Yellowstone Connection, participating service providers hope to increase local referrals, keep service dollars local and quality of workmanship high, he adds.
The Yellowstone Connection requires partners to maintain the necessary certifications, training and licensure for their business and employees along with proper general liability and workman’s compensation insurance.
In addition, The Yellowstone Connection partners guarantee use of quality products.
“Cutting corners on quality supplies like paint or shingles may make the other guy cheaper,” says Yellowstone Connection literature, “But what will this do for you in the long run?”
A final guarantee on all work also adds a premium to using a contractor from the referral network. Most participants in the program are local and family-owned businesses with decades of experience of service in the Livingston community.
The Yellowstone Connection maintains a Facebook page with regular updates, and participants Gutter Solutions are one of the members of the association who also maintain a detailed blog online at guttermontana.biz.
On the Gutter Solutions blog, detailed localized case histories, ideas for saving water with rain barrels and tips for maintenance and repair are among the many topics updated regularly for interested customers.
Participants in The Yellowstone Connection also include Nevins Glass, D.B Drywall Finishing, Miller Roofing, Printing for Less, Romans Plumbing, Ron’s Building and Painting, Tech Electric and Wells Works Excavations.
Downtown on the Rise:
While the tremendous building boom of a few years ago has subsided, one local builder has chosen spring of 2011 to complete a project restoring and revitalizing a historic downtown property.
Former State House Representative Bob Ebinger, his wife Robin Hoggan Ebinger and architect Lucas Schad are the primary partners in Goughnour Properties, a business that has been revitalizing the historic 1891 Goughnour Lumber Yard property near the corner of Lewis and Second Streets in downtown Livingston.
While a complete renovation of the historic building on the property was completed about four years ago and two privately-owned condos were created, partner Bob Ebinger says phase two is now finally nearing completion.
The second phase of the project includes building two additional 1,600 square foot condos on the site and garage space for the total of four units. Ebinger says they hope to have the project near-completion and have the final two condos on the market by July of 2011.
“We were waiting for the economy to turn and show signs of improvement,” says Ebinger, and adds the timing has worked out well and they plan get the project done while the market is improving.
Along with the condo installation, Ebinger also notes they aim to install a mural based on a historic photograph of the original lumber yard on the wall of the property adjoining the corner parking lot.
As an investor going forward on a speculative real estate project, Ebinger says he sees great promise in Livingston’s economic future, but there are challenges to be overcome: “What this community needs is some kind of large business coming in. He says there are many individuals and organizations in the city working towards this goal, but confidentiality clauses can make difficult to partner with new industry and determine how to meet the needs and goals of prospective new businesses.
“The business community and the property owners also need to promote growth themselves while there is less opportunity from the outside and pick themselves up from the inside,” adds Ebinger.
He notes the good environment, clean air and water, and high quality school systems could all be big draws for prospective industry and make Livingston a great place to live and do business. Activities in the arts also continue to enhance the community, but he notes a lot of activities in the arts base might not produce long-term or lasting growth.
Ebinger says a the city and county are attempting to find ways of promoting new development in Livingston, whether examining impact fees for small-scale development or working on bringing new business to town and he says he is looking forward to seeing the responses to many of the community’s economic challenges unfold in a positive manner.
Eventually, Ebinger notes, “The best success will come from different elements of the community working together.”