SNOW HILL — The update given to the Worcester County Commissioners last week on the condition of small business in the area turned out to be a silver cloud with a dark lining.
Maryland Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Regional Director John Hickman noted that interest in using the center has grown enough in the last year that his Berlin office has had to double its service time, from half-a-day once a week to a full day.
“Our client volume is fairly steady,” wrote Hickman in a letter to the commission. “We have been very busy with our new location in Berlin and have expanded our meeting hours due to client demand.”
Worcester Economic Development Director Bill Badger praised SBDC for working on starting new and preserving old small businesses.
“I found their services very important for the business community,” Badger told the commission.
According to figures provided by Hickman, the Berlin branch of the SBDC served 105 clients last year, 49 of which desired counseling while 56 asked for information or on-line assessments.
“Our typical client is a retail or service industry provider,” he said.
Hickman also reported that SBDC helped create or retain 14 jobs in the area, as well as aided in securing $1,310,000 worth of loans or equity financing. He noted that, given the fragile economy currently, the main goal for most people wasn’t expansion but stability.
“Someone who has a job right now is holding onto it,” said Hickman. “They’re not looking to start a new venture.”
The commission was happy to hear that interest in SBDC is growing but were less thrilled by the state of the business market in general.
Commissioner Virgil Shockley asked Hickman what kinds of collateral rates small business owners could hope for and the commission collectively winced when Hickman said the best most could expect are 120-150 percent rates, meaning putting up $100,000 worth of collateral might only secure a $50,000 loan at best.
“You look around and wonder why no one is hiring,” observed Shockley.
Shockley pointed out that rates were much more favorable just five years ago, when small business owners could expect a bank to match the value of collateral with a loan, or even give the business a slight advantage.
Hickman touched on the subject in his letter.
“Loan volume and job volume are down,” he wrote. “This is based on both an extremely tight lending environment and some caution among owners to expand staff in the current economy.”
Hickman emphasized that finding resources had become the biggest obstacle for his agency.
“The last year has been challenging getting capital for our clients,” he said.
Shockley asserted that it was a shame small businesses had to struggle in this kind of environment and was pessimistic about collateral rates improving any time soon.
“It’s going to get worse,” he said.
Commissioner Judy Boggs maintained a more positive attitude and pointed out that at least more business owners are using and benefiting from SBDC services in Worcester.
“I’m delighted you’re in Berlin,” she told Hickman, adding that she would like to see their service hours extend to two days next year.
Meetings with SBDC are appointment only. The program is funded by the county and consultation services are free for businesses. For more information, contact Hickman at 410-548-3679 or [email protected].