MERIDEN — Ron Harris has been driving trucks since 2010 and several years ago began saving money to start his own business.
“I wanted to leave something for the kids so they wouldn’t have to start from scratch,” Harris said. “Trucks are huge billboards so I took an existing idea and modernized it.”
Harris registered Trucking Advertising Network LLC in May 2019 and converted a truck into a rolling digitized billboard. He signed on a stone mason, a real estate company and a rapper for clients.
The pandemic slowed things down, but Harris finally started making money a year ago, he said. He travels from West Haven to East Haven and as far north as Windsor.
“There was a lot of research on my part,” Harris said. “I didn’t have to register as a billboard, just registration and insurance. There are 250,000 images daily on my route. We’ve got people coming out and taking pictures. Everybody is supportive and it’s a good way to advertise.”
Harris is one of hundreds of new businesses that started just before the pandemic and continued despite setbacks. According to the Secretary of the State’s office, the city reported 451 new businesses in 2020 alone, double its number of starts in 2015.
Meriden’s yearly average has also been higher than business starts in surrounding towns.
In 2015 the city had 216 new business formulations, in 2016 it increased to 292, in 2017 it dipped to 272, climbed to 337 in 2018, and 451 in 2020. Its average is 284 new starts annually, followed closely by Wallingford at 283, Southington at 262 and Cheshire at 187.
“The numbers certainly are significant and I think there are a number of reasons – the pandemic being one of them,” said Rosanne Ford, president of the Midstate Chamber of Commerce. “I think many people have re-evaluated their goals and are entering into entrepreneurship to turn that hobby into a business or to supplement their current job/career.”
According to City Economic Development Director Joseph Feest, new ethnic eateries, such as Bite Me on Pratt Street, have also contributed to the escalation.
City-hired consultant Devin Schleidt, of Schleidt Works LLC, pointed to the business starts in a presentation before the City Council’s Economic Development Housing and Zoning Committee last month.
“There is an uptick,” Schleidt said. What we have to ask is “is it due to COVID-19? Is it due to easier registration? Whatever that baseline is, there is a pickup. Are people quitting their jobs? We need to reach out to these firms,” he said.
In the course of his research, Schleidt has found several reasons. Some people were laid off or grew tired of their jobs, while shuttered schools and pandemic restrictions created a daycare crisis.
“They created an opportunity for themselves,” Schleidt said. “There are people who had to do this.”
Schleidt was hired by the city’s Economic Development Department and the Meriden Economic Development Corp. to survey small business owners about the need for a co-working space.
To help new businesses, the Midstate chamber, MEDCO, the city of Meriden and CTNext are hosting an entrepreneur and small business resource fair Sept. 29 from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at Il Monticello on South Broad Street.
“We want to introduce this group to valuable resources that are eager to help in the areas of education/training, funding and mentorship — among other things,” Ford said.
Resource providers include the state Department of Economic and Community Development, the Connecticut Economic Development Fund, the Small Business Development Center, The Black Business Alliance, Hedco, Score, and Nesit, a maker-space group that meets at 290 Pratt St.
Schleidt, who helped develop a co-working space in Norwich, will continue to survey the new businesses on their needs.
“My goal is to conduct a mini telethon and call these firms, get them information on resources from the SBA, other agencies that have grants or assistance and get a poll on how they’re feeling.”
Harris plans to expand with a new truck and hiring more drivers.
“This has been a lifelong dream,” Harris said.
Admission to the fair is free, but participants are asked to register by calling the chamber at (203) 235-7901.