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How many businesses are there in Boyle?

Numerous obstacles make it difficult to nail down a number

When the Economic Development Partnership finished taking answers for its most recent business survey, it had 84 responses. Is that enough to be representative of the business activity going on in Boyle County? Leaders say they have no idea.

“We just did a business survey, we got 84 responses, and I’m looking at the staff going, ’84 of what?’ And they’re like, ‘we don’t know,’” said Ben Nelson, chairman of the Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership.

EDP leaders say they want to know how many businesses there are and what those businesses are doing so they can keep track of how the county is doing economically and help any businesses that might be facing challenges. But getting to a simple number of businesses is trickier than it sounds.

If you want to count all the business activity that’s going on in Boyle County, you’re going wind up with a lot of contractors and workers from companies that do business here but aren’t located here, Nelson said. Those aren’t the businesses the EDP is particularly interested in monitoring — the goal is to get a complete picture of the businesses that have a Boyle County address and could be helped by the EDP, he said.

But once you’re talking about Boyle-based businesses, do you count even tiny operations like a booth in Peddler’s Mall?

“If that business is saying its address is Peddler’s Mall, yes,” said Kyle Talente, a consultant with RKG and Associates who is guiding the EDP through development of a strategic economic development plan. “Those folks are doing business in Boyle County.”

There are multiple obstacles to figuring out how many Boyle-based businesses currently exist.

For starters, while Danville requires businesses to have a business license, the city does not require annual renewal and it has no process in place for removing businesses from its list that are no longer in operation.

“Unless they told us they are closed,” the city can’t usually tell if a business that paid for a license is still open, said Bridgette Lester with Danville Code Enforcement.

“We either have to know that ourselves or they have to have told us that they closed. Otherwise, we don’t know if they’re active or not,” she said.

Chamber of Commerce Director Paula Fowler said she has Danville’s entire list of companies that have acquired business licenses, stretching back to the 1970s.

“Fifty percent of them could be out of business,” she said. “… We have no idea who’s in business and who isn’t.”

The governments of Danville and Boyle County do have information on what businesses are paying their payroll taxes every quarter, which would in theory be exactly what the EDP is looking for. But that tax information is confidential and state law provides it a very high level of protection, Judge-Executive Harold McKinney said.

“Our mantra has been we don’t share any information we collect in the process of collecting taxes, unless it’s a gross number,” McKinney said. “… We’re going to err on the side of protecting the privacy of the businesses.”

Lester said the law is clear that occupational tax information on businesses is not available for public use. It’s kept far more confidential than, for example, property tax records.

“It’s a need-to-know-only. It’s not just that anybody with the city can come look at a tax return,” she said. “I have to have a business reason for looking at somebody’s tax return.”

Nelson said as a private business owner, he understands the need to keep such identifying information private.

“I think this law protects me, which I’m totally on board with,” he said.

McKinney said he’s not even sure Boyle County could legally tell the EDP just the number of businesses that paid payroll taxes each quarter. But Boyle County is “working on some other reports” it thinks “might be helpful” to the EDP, he added.

Jennifer Kirchner, communications director for the EDP, said the Bureau of Labor and Statistics has estimated there are 805 businesses in Boyle County, but officials weren’t clear on what exactly that number represents.

“I can’t argue with that number; I can’t respond to it,” McKinney said.

“It’s very hard at any given time to nail this down because of the moving components of all of it,” Lester said.