Down on Main Street

A reply to an email arrived in my inbox the other day. It read, in part: “After 99 and 1/2 years and four generations, the ‘community’ bank refused to renew our line of credit. Would love to discuss this issue.”

It was a message from Jack Coleman, who was winding down operations at his fourth-generation lumberyard and home center in Harrodsburg, Ky., not far from Lexington.

Most of the time when you talk to a 99-and-a-half-year-old company, the conversation takes the form of a hopeful celebration looking back at major decisions and looking ahead at another 100 years.

Those are easy conversations. This one was hard.

Coleman has an impressive resume as a leader — 14 years in the Kentucky state legislature, a past president of the Kentucky Building Materials Association, and a bank director for 13 years. He is the great-grandson of company founder Clell Coleman. But the forces acting on the economy, his market, his business and the banks were too much for Coleman’s Lumber and Home Center. And since the situation facing Coleman’s Lumber unfortunately is shared by others, it’s important to explore the reasons.

“You have a perfect storm,” he told Home Channel News in a recent phone interview. “You have businesses that have lost money, banks that want to pull back, and regulators that have been in these banks looking at all the issues and requiring severe measures by the local boards. It’s just a perfect storm. And nobody in Washington seems to be listening.”

Coleman still describes his career in the LBM industry as “blessed,” but the demise of a company is naturally frustrating. At one time, the business had about 32 employees, but staff dwindled to about 13 or 14 near the end. “They’re our family,” Coleman said.

The last couple years have been particularly tough on the business. One clear problem has been customers’ inability or unwillingness to pay for services. As cash-strapped customers file bankruptcy and the liens and judgments pile up, the business simply starved.

“What we’re witnessing is the disassembling of Main Street,” Coleman said. “We’re protecting Wall Street, and witnessing the demise of the small businesses. We asked our bank for an extension, and they flat out refused.”

Such experiences have given Coleman sympathy for those who joined the Occupy Wall Street movement. But as a former legislator with knowledge of the system, he remains confident in it. He recommends a fix from within — through the power of the ballot and political pressure.

As a politician, Coleman was a member of the Democratic Party, but he feels both parties have blown their opportunity to address the key issues of housing and jobs. Lumber companies and Main Street businesses all over Kentucky and beyond are hurting, he said. And there seems to be no concern for small business owners.

“My intentions are to be able to walk off this property and say to my great grandfather, my grandfather, my father and this community that we did the right thing for the right reasons, and we finished this thing honorably,” he said.

As Coleman’s doors shut, the parking lot was full. Business was picking up in 2011. But the damage was done. “I’m concerned about the rest of the country,” he said.

Fourth-generation family businesses deserve a better fate.

— Ken Clark

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