Small Firms State Needs
By Sheila Gibbons Hiebert
Communication Research Associates, Inc.
While a panel of 11 government officials talked up programs to assist small business owners, those owners peppered panelists with questions of their own and descriptions of obstacles they’d faced in growing their businesses.
Dr. Brad Gottfried, president of the College of Southern Maryland, moderated the discussion, which ranged from the cost of pollution prevention to funding disparities for different college majors to training for green jobs to the uneven availability of broadband to the perpetually difficult process of obtaining permits for business startups and expansions.
Kevin Boyle of Shore Thing Shellfish LLC in Tall Timbers, an oyster grower, praised the diligence of individual staffers at the multiple agencies who need to sign off on his business permit, but expressed frustration at the difficulty of coordinating their efforts. He says he is dealing not only with the Maryland Department of the Environment and Department of Natural Resources, but also the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard.
“You talk about the bay as an economic engine,” he told the Commission panelists, “but how does this process encourage an industry to grow?”
Maureen Walker of Spice Islands Wicker in Owings said that the State Highway Administration’s crackdown on road signage for events hurt her business and others. She said that the curb on advertising, coupled with the recession’s impact on the housing market (on which her sunroom wicker furniture sales depend), forced her to lay off eight of her 16 employees.
Other speakers from the business community asked about the availability of educational subsidies for employee training and retraining; outreach to minority entrepreneurs; addressing transportation issues of low- and middle-income workers; and aligning educational choice and availability with preparation for careers.
The Commission panelists described their efforts to connect people with opportunity. Mark Williams, a lender relations specialist at the U.S. Small Business Administration, Baltimore District, said the SBA’s programs for women business owners and service-disabled veteran-owned businesses have been under-utilized. Especially with the service-disabled vets program, “We never meet” the spendable amount set aside for it, he said. He also talked up the “Encore Entrepreneur” program for retirees who want to start small businesses.
Kelly Robertson-Slagle, director of the Maryland Small Business Development Center, Southern Region, encouraged entrepreneurs trying to launch startups to talk to her. She offered to coach entrepreneurs from idea development through what she called “the valley of death,” that part of the process where ideas can die. She also offered assistance to businesses interested in selling to the international market.
Gregory Bowen, program director for Maryland FarmLINK, said he’s trying to correct a shortage of new farmers. He says he’s particularly interested in building a connection between military vets and farming to meet rising demand for fresh food from farm stands and the general public.
Zenita Wickham Hurley, special secretary in the Governor’s Office of Minority affairs, urged owners to register for the small business reserve program that allows small businesses to compete with one another for state contracts.