mwilliams@crbizjournal.com

ASTORIA — February brought stress for Donna and Tracy Black as they made the difficult decision to seek a new contractor for their two-story building at 1619 Marine Drive.

They decided on Helligso Construction after a frustrating wait from their previous contractor for a construction bid. They had expected the bid in December but did not get it until Feb. 19.

The couple are fiercely loyal and found the idea of dropping the contractor difficult, but after what Donna described as excuse after excuse, they decided it was time to look elsewhere.

“I realize he has a lot of projects in town, but ours is not a priority for him.”

The bid came in dramatically higher than his original estimate as well, she said.

Both described it as a learning experience and said they don’t want any surprises.

“I feel guilty not sticking with him, but I can’t do this any more,” Donna said.

Timing is critical. The Blacks wanted to be open by mid-May to fully take advantage of the busy summer season. They need to get the building up and the specialized equipment moved in so they can learn how to use it.

They’ve sold most everything they own to finance the venture, and money’s running tight. They need revenue coming in, and the summer tourist season would be a big help. But without a building, the plan is stuck.

The final counseling session of February was decidedly more upbeat. All options, including scrapping the plan and selling the land, were on the table during the previous meeting. But on Feb. 26 the Blacks’ optimism had returned. They were impressed with the level of organization of Helligso Vice President Ryan Helligso.

“He knew all the rules and seems easy to work with,” Donna said.

They had signed a pre-construction contract as of press time. There was still no solid time estimate for breaking ground or opening the doors.

They’ll need time to learn how to prepare the specialty meats, Italian ices and other products they plan to offer at Life In The Slow Lane. The restaurant will have a some special equipment that will require training, and running the business will have a learning curve.

Despite the construction woes, the couple continued to focus on other aspects of the business. They attended a class focusing on employment. Hiring issues were an eye-opener for Tracy.

“I didn’t realize how sensitive questions have to be when you’re hiring,” he said.

The class pointed out questions about age, religion and other topics that are off-limits during a job interview.

Documentation is also important.

Powell also stressed that even small businesses need to have an employee handbook and go through it with new hires on the first day.

“You’re assuming the best when you hire, but you still have to protect yourself,” he said.

Even as discussion transitioned to personnel, the larger topic of construction drifted back to the forefront. It’s difficult to focus on hiring, suppliers and marketing when the single largest startup expense is still a question mark and the Grand Opening date edges away.

Small Business Development Center counselor Dick Powell helps the couple keep it all in perspective, pointing out that the busiest part of the tourist season, a key part of the Black’s business plan, traditionally doesn’t get rolling until July.

Whatever the case, the Blacks are just relieved to have found a contractor.

“It takes a lot of pressure off us,” Donna said.

Editor’s note: The Coast River Business Journal is following Donna and Tracy Black as they create their business, Life In The Slow Lane. They are receiving counseling from Clatsop Economic Development Resources and the Small Business Development Center at Clatsop Community College. This story is compiled from counseling sessions and other interviews.

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