A national survey showing the highest level of optimism among small business owners since 2006 and an increase in the number of Maine businesses looking to expand is evidence that businesses are finally moving beyond the recession, business advocates and owners said.

Recent business decisions by Berry & Berry Floral in Hallowell and Gardiner — purchasing two new delivery trucks while closing a third location — mirror the mixed bag of optimism and struggle felt by many central Maine businesses.

While the family-owned business had been seeing steady growth at its two downtown stores, sales at the original storefront on Route 32 in Windsor were slowly falling, said Aurilla Holt, who owns the business with her husband, John. As a result of the continued decline, they closed the Windsor store in November and sold the building, she said.

Around the same time, the business purchased two delivery vans to replace two vans near the end of their life, Holt said.

“We knew that business had been good, and we felt comfortable going ahead with both, not just one,” she said. “That right there is a good sign.”

The National Federation of Independent Business surveys its member businesses monthly to determine how many plan to make capital purchases or hire new employees, expect sales to increase, expect the economy to improve and several other indicators. The majority of businesses that responded to the survey have fewer than 10 employees.

Fueled by increases of businesses planning to expand and expecting sales to improve, the overall optimism rating for December rose to its highest level since October 2006.

“Hopefully, if this is any indication of what’s to come, 2015 should be a pretty good year for the small business economy,” said Holly Wade, director of research and policy analysis for the organization.

The U.S. Small Business Administration, a federal agency that supports small businesses, has seen an uptick in the number of loans approved recently, particularly in the last several months.

Seth Goodall, the regional administrator for the SBA in New England, said the growing number of SBA-approved loans issued to Maine businesses represents an increase in the number of businesses looking to expand and that there are more businesses in better financial positions to qualify for the loans.

Since the start of the federal fiscal year in October, there has been a 23 percent jump in the number of Maine businesses approved for government-backed loans through the SBA compared with the same time frame last year, Goodall said.

“The economic indicators are very positive for businesses,” he said. “We are very optimistic, and we know small businesses are increasingly optimistic and are making investments in their businesses and employees.”

The Maine chapter of another entity that helps small businesses, the Service Corps of Retired Executives Association, known as SCORE, has seen an increase in people seeking advice from its volunteers.

Ron Dillon, district director for SCORE Maine, said since October, the group has seen a 30 percent increase over last year in new clients seeking free consulting help to start or expand businesses.

People also seem to be finding it easier to secure loans from commercial lenders for expansions, usually in the form of new equipment or new product lines, Dillon said.

David Clough, Maine state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said he thinks one reason business owners are more optimistic about the economy is the state and national election results, which saw a wave of Republican victories. He said he’s heard from business owners who feel it will be a more business-friendly climate and feel more confident that there won’t be unexpected costs of employment.

But even though some are more confident in the economy, it’s still a difficult time for businesses, Clough said, with strong competition in a lot of industries.

“For those who say conditions are getting better, you won’t hear them saying conditions are great,” he said. “Conditions are getting better, but it’s still a tough world.”

Karen Loftus, an owner of Winslow Supply, a wholesaler and retailer of plumbing, heating and electrical supplies, said business has been very slow in recent years. She said most of the business’ customers are residential contractors, an industry hit hard in the recession.

The store is down to seven employees after laying off a couple of people a few years ago, Loftus said.

However, sales have picked up since the fall, she said.

“I think people are starting to loosen up their pocketbooks a little bit,” she said. “Maine people are quite frugal. They’ll do with it and keep fixing it until eventually they get a new one.”

At Hamelin Furniture in Waterville, sales have been soft recently, but the century-old retailer has still seen a steady increase for the last few years, owner John Hamelin said.

Hamelin has only three employees, but he said he would like to hire more if the business warranted it.

“We’re guardedly optimistic,” he said of the future.

The future is all Colleen Tyler has at Vickery’s Cafe in downtown Augusta.

Tyler bought the eatery in May. Although the winter months have been slower in comparison to the summer, sales are still above what the previous owner was making, she said.

“I’m looking forward to the spring months,” Tyler said.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @paul_koenig


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