Skip to main content

Susquehanna Life

The Role of Independent Businesses in Hanover’s Rebirth

Nov 27, 2016 03:48PM ● By Melanie Heisinger

By Emily Gibbs

Think of the town you grew up in. What businesses stick out in your mind? Wal-mart, Target and the grocery store chain? Or is it the coffee shops, independent bookstores and local boutiques that make your town truly unique? Those mom and pop endeavors are leading a renaissance in downtown Hanover. 

The most memorable places in a town, most would agree, are the independent businesses—typically privately owned and operated by people who live in the community. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, independent businesses comprise over 99 percent of all businesses in the U.S.; in 2013, there were approximately 28.8 million of them. In addition, 52 percent of all workers are employed by small businesses.

            Throughout U.S. history the idea of entrepreneurship and self-employment has been popular, tied up with the ideal of the American Dream and its proximity to anyone with the guts and perseverance to reach for it.


Revitalization effort


            That’s one reason downtown Hanover is leaning on small business start-ups to foster economic development. Since 2003, the Hanover Borough, Chamber of Commerce, and the York County Economic Alliance have helped expand downtown Hanover, resulting in a significant number of new independent businesses. The initiative, titled Main Street Hanover, strives to expand the economic capacity of the downtown area, allowing for a greater wealth of business—independent businesses, in particular—as well as a greater community connection.

Gary Laird, president of the Hanover Chamber of Commerce, estimates that there are approximately 180 small businesses in Hanover, 26 of which opened in 2015.

“The key goals of Main Street Hanover are coordinating merchant activities, planning events that bring people into downtown, business recruitment and real estate redevelopment,” says Laird. “Its primary role is to provide connections and resources for small businesses to help them grow.”


Case in point

Merlin’s Coffee was established by Eric and Donna Burns in 2004. The couple worked in coffee shops before they decided to open one of their own. Many small businesses are started by people with a passion; their inspiration and innovation are invaluable to the community. Starting their own business was not without its difficulties, however.

“At first, I worked the business alone while Donna maintained her corporate job,” Eric recalls. “She joined me in the store full-time in 2008.”

Financial concerns may top the list of small business owners’ concerns, but there are many others: lack of time due to smaller staff; space limitations; and higher costs. However, there are many benefits to owning and operating a small business.

“We report to ourselves and don’t have to worry about someone standing over our shoulders,” says Burns. “We determine what we sell. We have a friendly, lived-in, family ambience. We get to know a lot of interesting people.”

An important part of the success of a small business is finding ways to connect to community. The coffee shop hosts events, including book signings, cat adoptions and collecting donations, instead of tips, for a local no-kill shelter. This community atmosphere is appealing to the target audience. The smaller staff allows for more hands-on, personalized service. And independent businesses create jobs within a community and keep money circulating within the local economy.

“Independent businesses are the backbone of our society,” says Burns. “And bring a unique flavor to the town. Our customers enjoy the camaraderie created in our store.  It’s definitely a community place.”

Merlin’s Coffee has grown into two locations—one in Gettysburg—and supplies beans to other coffee houses.  It’s a business fueled by an unstoppable work ethic and extremely friendly customer service. On the company’s Facebook page, Burns interacts with regulars with the casual ease that comes with talking to them daily.


Another example


Miscreation Brewing Company was established in 2015. The microbrewery offers a variety of brews and food items, and hosts various events, including live music. Owner Mark Mathias says the business present its own challenges and rewards.

“The biggest challenge of running a small business is that you’re always learning something, whether you have an interest in it or not,” says Mathias. “It’s difficult to balance work with other things. You still have to make your product and run a restaurant and be a father. It makes for a long day and week.”

Despite these challenges, Mathias finds running an independent business rewarding, allowing him a measure of freedom and creativity that otherwise would not be possible.

“Independent businesses show that creativity and hard work can still happen,” he says. “What would the world be like if everything was just big chain stores and restaurants? There would never be a reason for people to leave their hometown because it would all be the same.

 “Owning a business is like having a child,” Mathias concludes. “You have long sleepless nights, and you learn and train your business for years in the hopes that one day it will be a contribution to the community.”


Success on the horizon


In addition to the increasing number of small businesses, there is evidence the Main Street Hanover initiative is working. Its Downtown Beautification Program made it possible to purchase and maintain hanging baskets and planters downtown—a visual indication of the town’s burgeoning success. Last June Main Street Hanover announced its new status as a 2016 Main Street America Accredited Program. And dozens of new events and initiatives, including Chalk It Up, Sip & Stroll, the Hanover GeoTrail and the celebration of National Small Business Week, are attracting people downtown.  

As Hanover’s small business population grows, the Main Street program will continue to be the backbone, cheerleading small business start-ups and providing needed resources, ranging from business planning, marketing and funding.

“Think of Main Street Hanover as the mall management company with no roof or walls,” said Laird. “They coordinate marketing themes, branding, events and access to other resources to support growth and development.”


Emily Gibbs is a Susquehanna University junior from Hanover, Pa., majoring in creative writing and publishing and editing.

Photo credit: Hanover Area Chamber of Commerce. Christmas donation tree, Eric Burns.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Susquehanna Life's free newsletter to stay informed