Small businesses raise top concerns

Solutions offered at Chatham sessions

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The business program Thursday at Chatham University was billed as a White House roundtable.

The fact that the table was rectangular and no one from the White House made it to Chatham did not detract from the efforts of the few hundred participants on hand to talk about how government could lend a hand to business.

The program was part of an eight-city series of discussions called "Startup America: Reducing Barriers." Because of thunderstorms and tornadoes that tore through the South on Wednesday, the officials who were most closely linked to the White House could not fly out of Washington, D.C.

Chatham University President Esther Barazzone noted the missing panelists by telling a story about when she missed a meeting and was referred to as the woman "who needs no introduction -- because she isn't here."

The key players, the small business owners and entrepreneurs who know first-hand the problems faced by companies trying to start or expand, were there in spades and many had suggestions about ways the government could help.

Their solutions were aired during smaller breakout sessions, such as the one in which David F. McAnally, president of Appalachian Lighting Systems in Ellwood City, said bankers are reluctant to give loans to small businesses because the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. will ding them for taking too much risk. He said that was directly at odds with the goals of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

"Banks don't want to take the time to get to know small businesses," he said.

Judy K. McCauley, the director of the West Virginia District Office of the Small Business Administration, said the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 had provided a guarantee to banks so that if the business owner defaulted and his collateral did not cover the full loan amount, the SBA would cover the rest up to 90 percent. That loan protection had expired, she said.

Mr. McAnally said the guarantee should be revived or a separate SBA loan pool should be started.

Another problem faced by small businesses was brought up by Jeanette King, the CEO of information technology firm Strategic Resolution Experts Inc. in Martinsburg, W.Va., who said federal officials who are supposed to be working with small businesses don't return her phone calls. She said there should be a way to measure how many small businesses they are helping and they should be encouraged to increase the pool of small businesses with which they deal.

Another group's results, reported to the larger session by Katherine Needham, of Needham Consulting of Harmar, included the idea that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission should change the qualifications for investors in start-up companies.

Currently only relatively wealthy individuals are allowed to invest in risky start-ups because they can afford to lose the money. Ms. Needham's group proposed creating funds, such as investment clubs, in which the members pool their money for investments.


Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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