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October 19, 2011
Upstate entrepreneurs cautiously upbeat

Frank Ruby, owner of Blue Ridge Hobbies says business is going so well that he is looking for a larger space. / KEN OSBURN/Staff
By Jenny Munro, David Dykes, and Angelia Davis | Staff writers

Small-business owners, the backbone of the state and national economies, say they’re seeing mixed signals in the local economy, with optimism for modest gains and improving
business conditions tempered by fears of another recession.

By nature, these entrepreneurs are a hardy group.

“If I can sell cakes at the economy’s absolute worst, I know I can sell them during better times,” said Andrea Goodjoin, owner of Divine Desserts by Andrea in Greenville

Goodjoin began her cake-baking business in the midst of the last recession, leaving her job to become a baker in 2008. She not only survived but expects growth will continue as the economy improves.

shares a bakery now. With proceeds from a Michelin Development Upstate loan, she intends to move to her own storefront early next year. Over the Labor Day weekend, she began operating a cart in Haywood Mall and has hired one employee, who works with her on weekends.

When Bruce Yandle, an economist who is the dean emeritus of Clemson University’s College of Business and Behavioral Science, looks at economic data, he sees nothing that “suggests there is any perceptible positive current in the economy.”

“The data I see suggest we are moving along a bumpy road,” Yandle said.

Still, he points out that he looks at past data and business owners tend to look at the present and the future.

“They look at the numbers of people who come in. They are looking at the future. I would put a good bit of credence in what small-business men and women think,” Yandle said. “They are risk-takers. But they’re also the survivors of a tough period, so that suggests they are cautious risk-takers.”

A recent survey by the National Federation of Independent Business showed a modest gain in small-business confidence in September. The NFIB said small-business optimism gained 0.8 points, ending a six-month decline.

“But about the only good thing to say about it is that the index didn’t go down,” the NFIB said. “The net percent of owners expecting real sales to improve became less negative by 6 points, ‘rising’ to a negative 6 percent. The net percent of owners expecting better business conditions in
six months ‘rose’ 4 points to a negative 22 percent, not exactly a euphoric development.”

The NFIB said the future for small-business sales remains weak and fewer owners are
investing in their businesses.

Twenty-eight percent of small-business owners reported that poor sales are still their top business problem, the NFIB said. In fact, poor sales have been the top business problem for small-business owners for the past three years, the association said.

Access to credit isn’t a widespread problem, with only 4 percent reporting that financing was their No. 1 business problem, the NFIB said. Ninety-two percent reported all their credit needs were met or that they were not interested in borrowing.

“An increase in consumer spending would be the best imaginable stimulus right now, not gimmicky Washington policies,” said NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg. “The key to economic recovery is restoring the confidence of consumers; only then will small businesses begin to see the sales they need to expand.”

Justin Kopelman, a 2009 Clemson University graduate who opened a Pita Pit restaurant on College Avenue in Clemson two years ago, said the current economy is forcing small-business operators to refocus their marketing.

During the summer, he offered punch cards, allowing customers to receive a free pita after they bought nine, Kopelman said. Customers who filled their cards were entered into a drawing to win an iPad, he said.

Frank Ruby, owner of Blue Ridge Hobbies on North Pleasanburg Drive near the Cherrydale Point shopping center, said sales last month were up 7 percent over last year and that’s in “a discretionary business .” “Nobody needs model trains to survive, but our business continues to increase so we have to move to bigger digs,” Ruby said. “So, we’re saying, ‘So what's with the economy.’ We’re going to keep plugging along.”

He is preparing to move to a new, expanded location, partly because his Internet business has increased, Ruby said.

“Small-business owners are typically an optimistic lot,” said Frank Knapp, president and chief executive CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce. But they also tend to be conservative by nature, he said.

“Obviously, there’s still consternation and concern about what the economy is going to do,” Knapp said.

Barbara League, chairman and CEO of G.F. League Manufacturing Co., said her Greenville company “has drastically changed the way we do business” in recent months. The changes, however, have been the result of growth rather than a contraction during the recession and a slow recovery, she said.

The company has experienced few problems during the last three or four years because of the diversity of its client base, she said. When one company slows, another in a different industry is growing, League said.

Employment at the plant, which does fabrication for various industries, has grown in the last several years although it still has fewer than 30 workers, she said.

And that growth is a cause for optimism and some fear, she said. The family-owned company has bought the old Wunda We've facility at 2200 Poinsett Highway and is renovating it with plans to move production there in several months.

The 140,000-square-foot facility has been empty for several years.

G.F. League has run out of space at its 25,000-square-foot facility on Furman Road, where it has been since 1936, League said.

League Manufacturing has diversified since its beginning in 1917 as a wholesale lumber brokerage. In the 1930s, it began manufacturing textile machinery replacement parts.

“For the first 40 to 50 years, we were exclusively married to the textile industry,” League said. But when the textile industry began faltering in the 1960s, “we knew we needed to diversify and fast.”

Model trains may bring tourists to Greenville

By Angelia Davis • Staff writer • Published: November 28. 2010 2:00AM

The next big thing in Greenville could be a new small world.

Models like this one of the old Southern Railway Station at the end of West Washington Street
will be among those featured in the Miniature World of Trains exhbit.
(Ron Gillen Fine Arts)

This new miniature world would be part of a museum and a more than 30,000-square- foot operating and
interactive model railway, with detailed scenery, spanning portions of North America.

Frank Ruby, president of the Miniature World of Trains (MWOT), the non-profit group developing the railroad for display and operation, said the aim is to promote the hobby of model train building, educate people on the technologies that go into the hobby, and create an attraction that draws people from all over the world into Greenville.

Ruby, owner of Blue Ridge Hobbies on North Pleasantburg Drive, said the exhibit would be similar in magnitude to the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg Germany.

Miniatur Wunderland is a railway model that, so far, features scenes spanning from Scandinavia to the United States. Along the way are various dioramas featuring people and landscaping.

The exhibit has had more than four million visitors. Ruby believes the Miniature World of Trains can do likewise, partly because the closest to it is the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

“It’s not a small thing,” Ruby said. “What they’re doing (in Germany), we’re going to do here and a lot better,” Ruby said.

“A lot of people know about the Baltimore and Ohio railroad museum, the Pennsylvania railroad museum, and if you go to Chattanooga, and you know about the Chattanooga Choo Choo and all that stuff,” Ruby said.

“We want to create the same thing here. Based on what we’re hearing just from the little bit of information we’ve been putting out there in the last the month or so, there’s a lot of interest in this,” he said.

Jerry Howard, president and chief executive officer of the Greenville Area Development Corp., sees the Miniature World of Trains as a great opportunity to promote local tourism.

‘”If you look at what’s been done in Munich, it’s a curiosity that attracts the attention of a lot of people,” he said. ‘”It’s pretty intriguing.”

Another notable aspect of the project is what it could do for education, Howard said

According to Mike Jensen, an electrical engineer, retired U.S. Navy nuclear submarine officer and a retired independent software developer involved in the MWOT project, a portable mock-up locomotive, capable of being delivered to the classroom, would allow the train to be controlled over the Internet from the classroom to the project facility.

Aside from the fun of doing this,
students would be shown what railroads do as well as the underlying technology that allows remote control of the model and remote viewing results, according to Jensen.

“Students of all ages today need to be challenged and stimulated by the world we live,” Jensen said.

“We should find ways to channel their video game experiences and inclinations into real world technologies in order to prepare them for the highly technical world that we now live and compete in.”

There can also be educational gains for those who view the MWOT at its future location, which has not yet been determined.

“They can model different rail lines, cities, and all the various evolutions of the railroad around here from the old Atlantic coast line, the CSX, and Norfolk Southern, Howard said.

“Since there’s been so much talk about high speed rail between Atlanta and Charlotte with Greenville in the middle, that’s something that can be modeled,” he said. “There’re a lot of things that are certainly of historical interest as well as educational, so I’m real excited about it.”

The project, which will require more than $1.5 million for the initial phase, would feature many recognizable locations as it is developed in stages. The South Carolina, North Carolina

Georgia stage could include the Greenville Yard, West End Greenville, Old Southern Railway station Greenville and the Port of Charleston.

MWOT is looking at possible locations off Woodruff Road, Wade Hampton Boulevard, and Roper Mountain Road to house the model railroad exhibit.

The building has to be anywhere between 45,000 and 100,000 square feet and have at least 150 parking spaces, Ruby said.

The group is also raising money for the project’s first phase. Their corporate sponsors include World’s Greatest Hobby, Walthers, ExactRail, and others.

"The group has some of the major manufacturers of railroad modeling already on board as sponsors donating of equipment and that sort of thing,” Howard said. “And there’s a big base of people in this area into model railroading that are going to help build the scenery, rail lines and all that.”

Construction of some of the model buildings is already underway, Ruby said.

The first phase will include the Greenville-Spartanburg area up to New York.

Among the possible locations that could be modeled is the BMW plant, with a site showing cars coming off the production line, being loaded onto the auto train going from Greenville down to Charleston, and then being unloaded from the auto train onto a cargo ship, being shipped over to Europe and vice versa with different cars.

MWOT can also use the technology now available with model railroading to put Proterra buses in operation in Greenville to show how those vehicles would interact in the area.

The same will be done with the likes of coal facilities.

“We’re going to show how the coal gets out of West Virginia onto the train, going out to the Duke Energy power plant here in South Carolina, unloaded, and low and behold there’s electricity,” Ruby said.

“It all can be done,” he said. ‘“It’s just that we’re going to combine it all with the current state of the hobby which is digitized. We’re going to put it on steroids.”

Want to know more?

To donate or for more information about the Miniature World of Trains: Visit the Miniature World of Trains corporate office at 2400 N. Pleasantburg Drive, Suite F, Greenville, SC, 29609, or call 255-4671 or visit www.miniatureworldoftrains.com.

View online at:

© Greenville News 2010


Frank Ruby is president and chairman of the board
for Miniature World of Trains. Greg Beckner/Staff

By S. Kim Henson  NOVEMBER 19, 2010 1:36 p.m.

The concept for building North America’s largest HO-scale model railroad exhibit in Greenville began with conversations over the counter at Blue Ridge Hobbies after model railroaders heard about the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg, Germany.

Frank Ruby, owner of the hobby shop on Pleasantburg Drive and Miniature World of Trains’ president and chairman of the board of directors, said, “It’s not just about model trains around the Christmas tree any longer.”

German twin brothers, Frederik and Gerrit Braun, created a nearly 69,000-square-foot private museum and continue to add to it and to the world’s largest model railway inside. Greenville’s site is expected to total 50,000-square-feet. It will include a 30,000-square-foot layout of the country’s well-known railroad scenes, a railroad history museum, restaurant and Ruby’s hobby shop.

Negotiations are under way for prospective locations. The most promising to date are in high traffic areas and near the interstate. One is in the Interstate 85 and Woodruff Road vicinity and the other on Wade Hampton Boulevard.

Ruby said Greenville is an ideal location because it’s in the center of four major metropolises (Atlanta, Columbia, Asheville and Charlotte) and within a daytrip’s distance of nine million people and the climate and nearby attractions offer destination appeal.

“This attraction has a tourism component as well as an educational component, to allow visitors to learn about railroads, the historical features, high speed rail and much more. And there’s a lot of technology involved that may offer some good jobs for the Greenville area,” said president and CEO of Greenville Area Development Corporation Jerry Howard.

The initial phase is projected to open in early 2012. Starting with the East Coast, phase one will feature Greenville’s downtown, businesses like Allied Steel and GE, North Carolina’s Saluda Grade and farther reaching highlights like the Florida Juice Train that in two days carries Tropicana orange juice from Florida to just outside New York.

With a focus on education as well as entertainment, the facility will promote green building, advanced technology and not just trains but all forms of transportation.

The project will be built in sections on the most popular scale in model railway, the HO-scale, because merchandise is accessible. The ratio is 1:87 and replicas of train cars are shorter than a pencil in length and smaller than ones by Lionel.

For its startup, the museum will need $500,000 and more than $1.5 million for the initial phase. As the non-profit winds down its first month of fund raising since acquiring non-profit status, Ruby said they have accepted personal contributions as well as $200,000 in product donations from model railroad manufacturers across the country.

The cash is being spent for advertisement, to order T-shirts and construct box cars and other merchandise with the museum’s logo to present in exchange for donations.

Ruby is looking forward to grant funding and tax deductible contributions from the general public, corporations, private hobbyists, model railroad clubs and railroad charities as the word spreads.

For now he said there will be no loans to prop up the project. Paperwork has been filed with local companies like Duke Power, Michelin and BMW to ask for sponsorships and matching funds when employees donate.

Howard said when asked about funding in a down economy, “Recessions are temporary but museums last.”

The facility will support 100 to 150 employees and donate back to the community, said Ruby, based on what is happening in Germany and at one of the world’s largest science museums, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Ruby said, “The project will have worldwide appeal. Germany’s railroad museum attracted a million visitors last year and Chicago’s museum also seems to be thriving.”

“I don’t have a crystal ball but this has potential to be a major, major tourist attraction. A tourist destination that may draw a whole lot of people to the area,” Howard said.

Ruby started Blue Ridge Hobbies in 2005 as an online business, opened a retail store in 2007 and relocated last year to a building twice its size.

He said, “It all started when my wife made the mistake of giving me a train set on our first Christmas together. They kept getting bigger and bigger as our houses got bigger. Then Blue Ridge Hobbies and now this.”

View this story from the Greenville Journal Online at: http://www.journalwatchdog.com/business/929-greenvilles-making-tracks

© Community Journals. All rights reserved.

2009 Article
Blue Ridge Hobbies Grand Opening
When Frank Ruby couldn’t find the model railroading products he wanted, he decided to make the search easier on himself and others by opening a business.

This week, he’s celebrating another expansion of that business, Blue Ridge Hobbies.

The store has moved from a 1,200 square foot space at 2327 North Pleasantburg Drive to a 2,400 square-foot space across the street at 2400-F North Pleasantburg Drive, beside The Home Depot.

The new location allows Ruby to display, add new merchandise, and double the amount of products.

Frank Ruby works on a model train display at Blue Ridge Hobbies' new location. (GEORGE GARDNER / Staff)

The store’s new additions include the “Wall of Track,” the introduction of more than 60 new brands of supplies, and the offering of how to classes on most aspects of model railroading, Ruby said.

The store will also add radio controlled planes, cars, and boats.

Blue Ridge Hobbies will continue to offer model railroading items for beginners up to craftsman. The items available include everything from track and scenery to trains and detail craftsman modeling kits.

The store also responds to the new demand of model railroading with the introduction of DCC (Digital Command Control) operation for Model Trains several years ago.

“It’s kind of like the convenience store of model trains” or hobbies, he said. “If you need it, you can come down to the store and it will usually be on the shelf. It’s rare that it’s not.”

Ruby started the business online at his home in 2005. He opened his first retail site across
the street from the store’s new location in 2007.

The business has grown in products and sales in spite of the recession.

Ruby said sales are up 38 percent in year-to-year comparisons, from January to
September 2008 and 2009. The sales total last year compared to this year’s projections
will be up 29 percent, he said.

“When we first opened we were nickels and dimes – literally,” he said. “We were lucky
some months in the first year to make $9,000 in sales. We do that in a day, day in a half, now.”

Geoff Duncan, a long-time customer of Blue Ridge Hobbies, believes model railroading is
somewhat recession proof because it’s a relatively modest hobby as hobby expenses
go - you get a lot of bang and pleasure for the buck” and “it is a great at home
hobby that doesn’t require a lot of traveling overhead to get there.”

Duncan attributes Blue Ridge Hobbies’ success, in part, to “substantially
discounted products” and Ruby’s knowledge as a model railroader and businessman.

Blue Ridge Hobbies’ grand-opening celebration is Oct. 1- 3.

Customers can register for drawings for free items contributed by major wholesalers during the celebration.

Business writer Angelia Davis can be reached at 864-298-4276.


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