A cry went up from four women sitting in the shade on high-backed wooden benches: "Brownie and Chipper are arriving!" All eyes turned to the left, up a little hill, and toward a double-gated fence. Brownie and Chipper bounded toward the group, followed by Sheryl Umphrem, their human.

Brownie, a Jack Russell terrier, and Chipper, a rat terrier, are regulars at the Rocky Top Dog Park on Route 27 in Kingston (609-279-2750), the only privately-owned, membership-only dog park in the country. Gretchen Zimmer, who worked full-time as an IT professional at Princeton Plasma Physics Lab for 15 years, opened the business on Thanksgiving weekend, 2001 (U.S. 1, January 16, 2002).

Having successfully found a location, cleared tons of rubble, rocks and fallen trees from it, obtained financing and insurance, installed lights, fencing and outbuildings, set up an accounting system, signed up 650 dog-owning families, and substantially cut back her hours at PPPL, Zimmer has gotten her unique venture off the ground.

Now comes the fine tuning that, with lots of hard work, and a little luck, will take Rocky Top to profitability, a goal that Zimmer says is still at least several years away.

"I’m experiencing growing pains, definitely," says Zimmer.

But at least one of her initial concerns, pricing, seems not to be a problem. Her basic charge of $36.50 a month was set at a level that would be close to what most people pay for basic cable television service. Before the park opened, with no comparable businesses from which to draw comparisons, Zimmer intuited that the park would be seen as recreation, and priced it accordingly.

Zimmer says she was reluctant to raise prices, which are up a little since the park opened, especially in a down economy. But she has done so, just a little bit, at the urging of her accountant. He told her that it was better to up membership prices a little now than to wait for years and risk upsetting long-term members used to static fees.

Price resistance hasn’t been much of a problem, but there have been challenges a plenty. And although Zimmer’s business is unique, it is a good bet that owners of new businesses of all kinds will identify with the challenges she is encountering:

Collecting dues. Zimmer does not hesitate even one second before identifying her biggest challenge — collecting her money. "Dues collecting is the biggest headache, and is very time consuming," she says. "I used to be a computer programmer, and one thing I wanted to get away from was sitting in front of a computer screen. But guess what? I spend six hours a day at the computer. Well, maybe not six, but at least three or four."

Part of that time is spent composing a newsletter, but most is spent recording dues payments, keeping track of who hasn’t paid, and reminding the laggards that their dues are outstanding.

To ease the burden, she started offering an "easy pay" system, through which dues are deducted automatically from a checking account or credit card, but despite discounts for choosing this option, only one-third of her members go along. She also introduced discounts — of up to 12 percent — for paying three, six, or twelve months at a time. Another third of her members go with this method.

Despite her best efforts to add some automation to the dues paying process, Zimmer says "I’m resigned. One-third of the members will always want to pay by cash or check, one month at a time."

Keeping the plant in good shape. Asked if she has thought of hiring someone to help with bookkeeping chores, Zimmer says no. She is nowhere near the point where she can afford an office employee. Besides, she says, there is a more pressing need for extra hands in the park itself. With membership up, she says, "Keeping the pond clean is a lot harder. There’s twice as much dog hair." Keeping Rocky Top’s meandering paths free of the wood chips kicked up by scores of paws is a bigger challenge now, too.

Being two places at once. Another reason Zimmer is considering adding a helper at the park is that she feels it is absolutely essential that a supervising human be on hand all day Saturday and Sunday — by far the park’s busiest days. She now generally takes the duty herself, but she is torn because the animal behavior courses she is determined to make time for are nearly always held on weekends.

Coping with attrition. In preparation for opening her business, Zimmer sought counsel from SCORE. "My counselor — I can’t remember his name — kept asking me about what rate of attrition I expected," she says. An easy-going woman with a wide, winning smile, she laughs at her naivete as she recounts that she totally blew off the question — again and again. "He kept pressing me," she says. "He kept on saying `you need to get an idea of your attrition rate,’ but it just didn’t compute."

Before long, however, she realized that "he was right on the money." Her membership is now at about 325, but that is only half the number of families who have joined since the park opened. She likens her dog park to a health club. New members start out with great enthusiasm, but are sometimes unrealistic about how often they will use the service. Since there are no facilities like hers anywhere in the area, it is not uncommon for a family from the other end of the state — or from another state — to sign up.

What percentage of her members are core, long-term customers? "About one third," says Zimmer.

Dealing with debt. Zimmer has yet to draw a salary. Revenue goes to paying back substantial debt — some of it drawn against her home — and to park improvements, including work on the pond. Sitting high on a hill in the front of the park, the small, man-made pond, whose waterfall cascades over a rock wall, is one of the park’s main draws. "Without the pond, membership would not be nearly as high as it is," Zimmer is convinced. So, money went into making it even more attractive. Money also went into creating a separate puppy park, where membership is just $10 a month, and where the big draw is camp-like gatherings where the baby dogs begin to learn to socialize.

Keeping the books. Zimmer is still using Quicken to track park revenue and expenses and also to keep track of her household finances. Her accountant is not pleased. She knows she needs to take her business accounting to the next level, and is preparing to make the switch to Quick Books, and to separate home and business accounting.

Staying put. Zimmer’s husband, a teacher, has the summer off — and has lots of holidays during the year, too — but the couple are now chained to her business. Vacations have been cut to a minimum, and can never span a weekend.

Learning all over again. Zimmer took business courses — many at Mercer County Community College — for years before starting her dog park. "Now," she says, "I’m going to take the courses all over again." While she got a lot out of her course work the first time around, all was abstraction. Only now, immersed in all the details of running a company, does she think that she is really ready to understand just what her instructors are talking about. And she realizes that it is vital to do so.

"I want to make wise business decisions," says Zimmer. "A lot of businesses fail in the first five years. One reason is that they try to expand too quickly, but another is that they don’t expand at all. I have all these ideas about how to make my park bigger — maybe put in another pond in yet another fenced area. But I don’t want to spend too much money too soon."

Nor does she want to add more locations too soon, although a number of people are urging her to do so. In the short time since Zimmer started the dog park, any number of her customers have suggested that she plant another one near their homes. One of her members, a gentleman from a town substantially north and east of Kingston, has even offered to bankroll her if she will start a park in or near his town. But she is simply not ready, not yet.

Franchising may be an option down the road, and requests for a Rocky Top franchise have come from all around the country. Zimmer even attended a SCORE franchising meeting. But, she says, it was aimed almost entirely at people who want to buy into a franchise, not start a franchise operation. In any case, she has learned that there are federal regulations governing franchising, and that one requires that those offering franchises must have been in business for at least several years.

Meanwhile, Zimmer, who has fielded any number of requests for information — generally from women — on how to start a dog park, is thinking of writing a book and selling it on the Internet.

Coping with the present, and weighing options for the future, Zimmer has no regrets about starting a business. Would she go back to a full-time IT job if, say, a 20 percent raise were offered? "Absolutely not," she says.

— Kathleen McGinn Spring

#h#Appelget’s First Year At the Chamber#/h#

I’m not frantic, everything is under control," says Kristin Appelget eight days before the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce Business Trade Fair. The event, the biggest on the chamber’s calendar, has sold out its exhibit space and is expecting record crowds despite its date, Thursday, August 28, just four days before Labor Day.

When fair day dawns, Appelget will have been on the job as only the second president in the chamber’s history for just under 14 months. Taking a few minutes out from dealing with last minute details, Appelget talks about her first year at the helm of an organization whose roots go back to the 1950s, to an era when no one had yet heard the words "big box mall" or "corporate downsizing," when sod farms and mom and pop shops were far more common in Princeton than strip malls and headquarters of multi-national companies.

As change has come to central New Jersey, so has it come to the chamber, and it is possible that even greater change is on the way. But, at the same time, the chamber under Appelget has stepped back toward its roots.

"I made a decision to join the Borough Merchants for Downtown Princeton," she says. While the chamber traces its beginnings to filling Nassau Street planters with summer annuals, it had moved away from its retail roots. Seeking to reverse course, Appelget spent the year actively supporting downtown retailers, working with the Community-Based Neighborhood Retail section of Princeton Future, a civic group dedicated to urban planning, and supporting the arts in Princeton.

A success was the publication of a brochure detailing summer arts events in and around Princeton. Over 100,000 copies of the color brochure were distributed through newspaper inserts, mailings, and through libraries. At a time when arts budgets are under attack from everything from state cutbacks to corporate penny counting, Appelget has made it a priority to get behind the area’s cultural venues and events.

Recognizing that visitors to any town tend to think first of the local chamber of commerce when they seek information, Appelget has pushed tourism to the top of the Princeton Chamber’s list of priorities. Stating a goal the chamber articulated even before she was chosen as its new head, Appelget says she would dearly love to have an office — even a satellite office — in downtown, where the tourists tend to be.

Still searching for a space for this office, she says, "it’s purely an economic decision." The chamber, she points out, is supported entirely by members. It has a staff of four, herself included, and it has to think long and hard about how much it can afford to spend on rent, and about whether its current staff can effectively man two offices.

While one of Appelget’s goals for her first year was to reach out to the area’s downtown retailers, another goal was to pull in their polar opposites — at least in terms of revenue. Adding more of the area’s big corporations to the chamber’s roster was a key goal. And while membership is way up — from 400 to 600 — this year, there has not been a corresponding increase in the large corporation category.

No matter, says Appelget, the chamber has managed to retain the corporate members on its rolls, and that can be counted as a victory in this economic climate. "We have been very fortunate not to have been cut in budget decisions," she says. For while corporations have been forced to cut everything from coffee service to computer contractors to sponsorships, the chamber’s corporate members have kept its dues in their budgets.

The chamber, which runs a full program of breakfast, lunch, and dinner meetings, along with big events like the fair and its annual golf outing, is drawing a number of members from the new entrepreneurial class. "Home businesses are hot," says Appelget. And those home workers need to get out of their dens to meet and mingle, to get advice on setting up computer networks, and to promote their services. Increasingly, they are choosing to do so at chamber events.

A big issue in front of the chamber as Appelget heads into her second year as its leader is whether to go it alone or to join forces with the Mercer Chamber of Commerce. This is not a new issue. "If you look back 20 years, 25 years, they were talking about this," she says. At present, committees from each organization are exploring some sort of alliance. The upshot, she says, could be a strategic alliance, a merger, or nothing at all.

Asked is she has been assured that there will be a spot for her in any eventuality, Appelget says she does not concern herself with speculation. "I have faith in the committees," she says. "As a staff person, it is not appropriate for me to comment." Besides, she is fully busy with other matters.

"I get in to work by 8 o’clock, and I’m often at my desk at 7 or 8 at night," she says. Then, typically, she goes out to community events — a lifelong West Windsor resident, Appelget is also a member of the West Windsor Township Committee. "I’m never off duty," is how she characterizes her life. She has taken one vacation during her tenure — to Florida, where a snowstorm stranded her. Instead of rejoicing in another day or two of warmth in the middle of a brutal winter, Appelget spent her enforced absence from work fretting about how soon she could return.

"When you love your job," she says, "time isn’t the issue. I view this as a 24/7 job."

#h#August 28 Fair#/h#

Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce Business Trade Fair and U.S. 1 Technology Showcase will feature more than 100 exhibitors on Thursday, August 28, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Westin hotel in Forrestal Village.

All events are free except the luncheon at noon, when Congressman Rush Holt will help present Business of Distinction Awards to Acorn Glen Assisted Living, Educational Testing Service, Jazams, Princeton Fuel Oil, and Small World Coffee. Cost: $35. Call 609-520-1776.

Ed Felten, director of Princeton University’s Secure Internet Programming Lab, keynotes with "Whose Computer Is It Anyway?" at 3 p.m. Small business workshops are at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and food and beverage tastings are throughout the day.

#h#Economic Conference#/h#

The state’s second annual economic development conference will feature a keynote speech by Franklin D. Raines, chairman & CEO of Fannie Mae, the world’s largest non-bank financial services company in the world and America’s largest source of financing for home mortgages. Titled "Opportunities & Perspectives: Poised for Growth," the conference is set for Friday, September 5, from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the East Brunswick Hilton. Cost: $95. Call 609-777-0885.

Rich Young, business editor of New Jersey Network, will moderate a panel discussion, "The Keys to Successful Business Financing." Other panels are "Driving Economic Development: Your Community as Magnet for Industry," moderated by Hamilton Township Mayor Glenn Gilmore, and "Enhancing the Business Climate in New Jersey," moderated by New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority President George Zoffinger.

Governor McGreevey and Commerce Secretary William D. Watley will also speak at the conference, which is sponsored by Prosperity New Jersey, the New Jersey Commerce & Economic Growth Commission, and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

#h#Health Watch#/h#

Eighty percent of all strokes occur when blood clots or fatty deposits block the blood flow in the brain. While effects can be devastating, symptoms often are subtle, and can include loss of balance, trouble seeing, numbness in the face, arm, or leg, or a severe headache.

Stroke is the leading cause of serious long-term disability, but quick treatment can mean full recovery. For some stroke victims, the difference between a full recovery and permanent disability is only three hours. That is the maximum length of time that can elapse between the onset of a stroke and the administration of t-PA, a clot-dissolving tissue plasminogen activator.

Now, a new study is being conducted on a new medication that can reduce the severity of the long-term effects of an acute ischemic stroke, and St. Francis Medical Center is taking part. The astrocyte modulator being tested in the trial, which is called the RREACT, Rapid Response with an Astrocyte modulator in acute Cortical sTroke, targets a different part of the biochemical chain of events responsible for long-term effects than does t-PA. There is a possibility that it could give medical personnel more time to effectively treat acute stroke patients.

At St. Francis, the trial is being conducted under the direction of Dr. Charles Kososky, program director of the Neuroscience Institute at St. Francis. For information contact Alison Trembly at 609-599-5792.

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