My husband’s hometown is Castellar del Valles, about 20 miles west of Barcelona, Spain. During our recent vacation, I had the opportunity to speak with family and friends using my very poor “survival” Spanish, as I speak no Catalan, which is their primary language.
It’s a friendly town of about 27,000 people that runs along the Ripoll River in a valley between two mountains. There are castles on the mountains, and during feudal times, they were used as guardians to the valley.
Being curious about the business climate, I began asking questions about the health of the economy. In fact, the economy and Barcelona football (soccer) are the main topics of conversations found at most bars. Bars are not like the U.S. kind – it’s more like a luncheonette or “mini” community center, a place for coffee, tapas and ice cream for the kids.
A conversation with Merce Arnau, a fiscal adviser with a degree in economics from Barcelona University, led me to believe that their economic concerns are similar to those in the United States. She is part owner of a 60-year-old family business agency, Oficina Administrativa Arnau-Germa, along with her mother, Maria Germa and sister, Rosa Arnau. The agency also has two-part time employees, Emi Gil and Eva Castillo.
There are three sectors to the business – fiscal, real estate, and insurance. The primary business of the agency is assisting businesses with taxes, filing government papers and permits – for start-up businesses and for bankruptcy. According to Arnau unemployment is about 17 percent and will probably be 20 percent by the end of the year. Spain’s gross national product declined 2.9 percent during first quarter of 2009.
“Construction is down. A lot of people are laid off,” she said. “Construction companies are taking on smaller jobs trying to keep their employees busy and to help with cash flow.”
She also said that those who are laid off are trying to start up their own businesses. She sees an increase in bars, small retail stores, consultants, beauty salons, and repair shops.
The insurance business is very slow, and the real estate part of the business is also down. She said there are the same houses on the market for the past two years and the same for apartments. Curious, I asked what sales were in the area. She said, for example, a small three-bedroom house of about 900 square-feet with a front and back patio would run about $300,000 (U.S.). Naturally prices would differ on the size and location of the property and there is real estate for sale at the $900,000 level.
“Housing and commercial sales are also down because mortgage money is very tight,” she said.
Other good friends, Ramon Marcet and Pilar Aliaga, own LaVolta, a take-out pizzeria that has been in the community for 20 years. They employ about 20 part-time employees on the weekends. Marcet explains that business is good for several reasons. Pizza is still an easy, inexpensive snack or meal. The pizzeria has expanded its hours to take advantage of lunch as well as dinner. And last November the company participated in a citywide food festival and gained many new customers. I must note that it’s not American-style pizza but more gourmet with a light, thin, home-made crust, and in addition to the usual sauce, cheese, meat, and veggie toppings, you can order it with salmon and anchovies.
Marcet said he has noticed that construction is down and pointed to where the Playtex Corporation building used to be. About two years ago, the building covering about two city blocks was torn down to make way for an apartment complex. But the site is still vacant. Aliaga said about three years ago, they invested in remodeling a building to sell new apartments, but they remain unsold. One of the reasons is the inability for potential buyers to get a mortgage.
Salvador Ordeig is the owner of Sagesa.Com, a supply company, specializing in curtains, napkins, tablecloths and other fabric items for hotels and restaurants. His business is down a little, but he thinks it will pick up as he is expanding to a national level with a new Web site www.hogarhoteles.com. Most of his business is done via the Internet with little to no walk-in traffic. His wife, Gema Martinez, owns a florist shop www.floristeriagemma.com and commented that her business is good and holding, but was a little off for Sant Jordi’s celebration when it is traditional to give one red rose to a women and a book to a man.
These comments sound similar to businesses in Independence. People and business seem to be the same everywhere; they just want to have the opportunity to make a decent living.