Gary Barlow would like to spend $80,000 to $100,000 upgrading the fuel
dispensers at his family's truck stop in Chesapeake.
But rather than stash away cash for a major investment in Frank's Trucking Center, Barlow said, he's spent the past couple of years saving for a rainy day.
"We're really trying to save all our money just to make sure we get by day-to-day first," Barlow said. "I'm not really sure what's going to happen next year."
Since the economy tanked in 2008, businesses have been saving money in record sums, and capital expenditures have not yet returned to the pre-recession level of 2007, according to records from the Federal Reserve.
Local business owners and economists say a fog of economic and political uncertainty hanging over Hampton Roads and the rest of the nation has driven big and small businesses alike to save rather than invest.
"These are dollars that could be used to hire employees, to purchase new equipment, to expand, and right now, they're sitting on the sidelines," said Jim Koch, a professor of economics and former president of Old Dominion University.
The impact of that hesitancy on the nation's economic recovery is clear, Koch said: "It's slowing it down."
Last week's elections notwithstanding, issues like the 2010 national health care law, military spending reductions, potential tax increases, government regulation, unrest in the Middle East and European debt woes all have contributed to a general sense of insecurity about the future, business owners and economists said in recent interviews.
Nicole Riley, Virginia state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said many small-business owners have been in "maintenance mode," particularly leading up to Election Day.
So what happens now?
President Barack Obama clinched a second term Tuesday. Democrats kept their hold on the Senate, and Republicans kept control of the House. There's potential for the political gridlock of the past couple of years to continue.
Economically, many local business owners predict more of the same: a slow and potentially perilous struggle to regain footing.
Frank's Trucking Center was built in 1939 near the intersection of Interstates 64, 264 and 664 in Chesapeake. Barlow's grandfather bought it from "a guy named Frank" in the mid-1950s.
Barlow is the general manager, and he works with his brother, Willie, and his mother, Patricia. They expanded their facilities in the early 1970s.
Recently, the only upgrades they've made have been out of necessity, such as when aging equipment breaks and must be replaced.
"It would be great if I had a ton of cash where I could upgrade everything now," Barlow said. "The past four years haven't made that possible."
Barlow said the economy pulled a one-two punch on his truck stop.
First, higher fuel prices forced some truckers out of business and away from his stop. Second, the sagging global economy led to a slowdown in shipping through the local port, which resulted in less traffic at his store.
Before the recession, Frank's Trucking Center employed more than 60 people. That's dipped to 45 now.
Barlow's stories are far from unique in Hampton Roads.
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