The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


November 11, 2012

Dislocated worker uses training program to launch new business

SOMERSET — When Rhonda Bittner lost her job at Fleetwood Folding Trailers in Somerset in 2005, she was at a crossroads.

She had an opportunity to train for a new career through Pennsylvania’s Rapid Response Coordination Services Program. Although the health field was a popular choice among trainees, Rhonda had no interest in medicine, and her dyslexia made typing too difficult. Rhonda turned to the one thing that she always excelled at – sewing.

“I made and sold my first gown when I was a senior in high school,” Bittner said from the shop floor of Rhonda’s Sewing Boutique & Special Events Rentals in the Glades Court Mall in Somerset. “Sewing is a God-given talent for me.”

Bittner is part of an emerging trend – starting a business midlife. A recent study found that there was more growth in entrepreneurship among people ages 45 to 54 in 2011 than all other age groups. Like Bittner before them, this group made up more than one-quarter of new entrepreneurs in the United States.

Bittner had tried once before to run a seamstress business from her home, but the endeavor ended abruptly when the family’s house was destroyed by fire.

She was ready to try again – this time, with a little guidance from successful business professionals through the Johnstown Area Regional Industries’ former Self Employment Assistance program (SEA).

“The SEA program enabled me to take different classes where I learned the dos and don’ts of starting a business. We actually went out and looked at places to rent so we knew what was out there. We also developed business plans detailing what we wanted to do and where we wanted to be in five years,” she explained.

That was six years ago.

Today, Bittner is searching for a new, larger location for her business. Between equipment and materials, work orders and tuxedo rentals, 600 square feet just aren’t enough. During prom season, for example, one changing room means girls are lined up out the door. Even now, in mid-November, Bittner is finishing work from August.  

And it’s not just local customers seeking Bittner’s expertise in clothing alterations and repairs.

She regularly serves customers from across Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Virginia – and occasionally, even farther.

“A lot of people find me on Google. I got calls from two people in Oregon within a week of each other about two separate weddings. They flew in, got off the plane, came here, I did what I needed to do, and they were on their way,” she said with a chuckle. “It’s amazing.”

Bittner’s tag line for her business is “from casual wear to formal wear.”

Her goal is to grow into a one-stop shop where customers can get everything they need for a wedding or shower. She credits the SEA program with opening her eyes to new possibilities.

“When I started my first business that I lost in the fire, I didn’t look ahead as to what I wanted. I was working in a back room and that is what I was going to do,” she said. “When I went through the SEA program, it forced me to grow my idea into something else – something more.”

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