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On The Scene: Small biz still breathing

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On the Scene
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Oregon is home to over 338,000 small businesses, a mighty sector that makes up a substantial majority of the state’s employers – 97.8% according to the latest data from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy. But it’s no secret that small businesses have taken a severe economic beating. Will people still be willing to put everything on the line to get that coffee shop or craft store up and running? And how are existing businesses getting by?

Some say the economy is improving, so I stopped by the Oregon Small Business Fair this past weekend to see if things were brightening up on the small-business side as well. Plenty of folks were eager to spend their rainy Saturday inside the Oregon Convention Center’s spacious halls, taking advantage of the free all-day event sponsored by local government and business organizations. Attendees had a wealth of resources available to them, from free seminars and consultations to information booths from groups like Portland General Electric, Women Entrepreneurs of Oregon and the City of Portland Revenue Bureau.

Also being represented at the fair was the Portland chapter of SCORE Counselors to America’s Small Business, a nonprofit operating out of the SBA and staffed by volunteers with small-business experience. Counselors Janet Livesay and Terry Jones were on hand to offer the organization’s services to small-business owners at the fair or people thinking about starting a business. They both agreed that the recession hasn’t necessarily put a damper on the volume of businesses getting launched. “Because people are losing their jobs, some of them are turning to their entrepreneurial side and considering business,” Jones said.

“It is an excellent opportunity to start your own business,” Livesay added. “The problem is a lot of people don’t have the money.” That sentiment was echoed by Russ Hooker, lender relations specialist at the local SBA office. Particularly in this economic environment, he said, would-be entrepreneurs are finding it difficult to secure capital to get their startups rolling, as strapped banks are trying to avoid the risks of defaulting loans. “The best thing for banks, if they’re tight, is to say ‘no,’” Hooker said. “And that’s what’s happening. So unless they’re really sound banks, they’re going to say ‘no’ more than they’re going to say ‘yes.’”

But one thing that’s been helping small businesses get started is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, signed into law by President Obama earlier this year. Hooker said people have been increasingly interested in this act because it temporarily waives fees for two of the SBA’s loan programs for the rest of the year, potentially saving the borrower thousands of dollars. Also as part of the act, the SBA temporarily increased guarantees for lenders up to 90% on the 7(a) program, an incentive that gives banks a little more confidence in handing out credit to budding startups.

As for existing small businesses, one thing that’s keeping them alive is doing whatever it takes to keep the doors open, even if the owners have to downsize the company and take on more of the burden themselves. One entrepreneur Hooker spoke to owned a cabinet company with about 20 employees, until the economy forced him to cut his staff and run the company on his own. It’s a tough move to make, yet that entrepreneur is still doing well, and it’s something that Hooker believes will keep small businesses intact until the landscape shapes up. “The guys that are doing that and are successful at it are the guys who are going to be around and will be able to take advantage of the economy when it turns again,” Hooker said. “And that’s important, having strong businesses that are poised for growth when the market comes back up.”

Kevin Manahan is the online editor for Oregon Business.

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