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The Era of Responsibility: A Case Study

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Subtitle: 
THE ERA OF RESPONSIBILITY: A CASE STUDY
Publication Date: 
23 January 2009

Gustavo Huapalla entered the new era of responsibility even before it was the central theme in President Obama's inaugural speech.

The Argentina-born owner of two small, Latin restaurants in Washington had little choice. Last year proved to be particularly challenging as rising prices combined with diminishing sales -- more than 50 percent in one of his restaurants last month.

But Huapalla is not simply surviving. He and many around him seem to embody what Obama called the sense of recognition that "we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly."

"If we have to work hard, it is now. I have to come up with something so that my business doesn't go bankrupt," Huapalla told me this week as he sat for a late lunch at Rumba Cafe, one of his restaurants. He has already lowered menu prices and now does all the purchasing and delivering of supplies himself, saving his business the 20 percent or so that intermediaries used to cost.

Even so, Huapalla finds himself now constantly juggling finances. Some weeks he has had to ask his workers to cash their paychecks a day or two later or longtime suppliers to wait until the end of the month. Both have obliged, interested in helping Huapalla keep his restaurants open.
His heart is so much in what he does that he largely refuses to see failure as an option. Instead he feels closer than ever to his employees and business associates, as they all grow aware of the need to give more in order to make it.

That's not to say that Huapalla has found universal solidarity. Indeed, he believes some commercial property owners, for instance, have been slow at becoming more supportive and flexible. Still, only with such change of attitude, he believes, the economy will recover.

Now when it comes to attitude change, nothing has clearly been more dramatic in recent months than the government's decision to become more involved in what's happening with the economy. If the current crisis has taught this country anything is that a great deal of responsibility also rests on the government's shoulders. In his inaugural speech, Obama spoke of how the current crisis "has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control."

So in these days of post laissez-faire capitalism, people such as Huapalla are hoping to see the federal government get behind small businesses, just as it has rescued financial institutions. They hope that Obama will make good on his assertion that those businesses are the "lifeblood" of the economy and provide, for instance, incentives for property owners to make rents affordable.

Obama and his team have already stressed the need that some of the initial $700 billion bailout go to provide low-interest loans to small business owners. That would be a good start for people such as Huapalla who just last week, thanks to his credit and business history, was able to secure a loan in the midst of a credit crunch, albeit at very onerous terms.

So far, Huapalla and other business owners in the city have found one advocate in the Latino Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit organization based in Washington that assists small businesses with microloans, technical assistance, and commercial facade improvement, among others. While the recession has weeded out businesses with unsustainable models, Manuel Hidalgo, LEDC's executive director points to Huapalla's as "one business that keeps making it."

As the economy begun to falter in 2006, LEDC helped form a coalition of small businesses, including Huapalla's, to negotiate group rates for wind power, insurance and marketing. More recently, LEDC has launched a Think Local First campaign to raise awareness through the community about the importance of supporting local businesses to help the economy.

"This is the perfect time to increase consciousness about what it means to spend your money," said Hidalgo. In an era of responsibility, people should grow more aware about the implications of every dollar spent.

According to a report released in September by Civic Economics, a sustainable economic analysis firm, for every dollar spent in local, independent businesses, 68 cents stay in the local economy, as opposed to 43 cents if spent in a national chain store.
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These days Huapalla has little time for anything other than his business. Still he shows no sign of regret. If anything he says he feels mostly gratitude these days, particularly toward anyone who walks into his restaurants. Even before Obama said it, Huapalla seemed to be, "firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task."