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SBA official committed to helping small businesses in area


BRADENTON - Small businesses are the key to the economy and its recovery, said Gilbert Colon on Wednesday during his visit to Bradenton City Hall.

Gilbert Colon visit
Gilbert Colon, left, with CEDC associate director of finance Veatrice Farrell, center, and Bradenton Vice Mayor Bemis Smith on Wednesday.

Stopping by to see Vice Mayor and City Councilman Bemis Smith, the deputy district director of the South Florida District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration, said 99 percent of the businesses in the country are small and the administration of President Barack Obama is committed to helping them get started, get through the current economic situation and grow.

So Colon came up from Miami to see what's happening and sign a Strategic Alliance Memorandum with the Central Economic Development Center in Bradenton. Also, Colon met with Manatee County Chamber of Commerce officials, Cesar Gomez, the executive director of the Latin Chamber of Commerce, Manatee County Economic Development officials and two SBA clients.

Veatrice Farrell, the associate director of finance for the CEDC, said it was an important day. "We're excited," she said about Colon. "He wants to let Manatee County know that resources are available. We're excited about bringing him to Manatee County."

Later, walking through the halls of City Hall, councilmembers Patrick Roff and Marianne Barnebey also met Colon and talked about their wards' needs.

An opportunity to seize

"We think that Miami is not the only place," he said. "I'm based in Miami, but we think it's important that we get out and get on the sidewalks and meet the individuals that really make it happen. We can't do this stuff by ourselves. It's important that we accept this challenges and the opportunities."

Farrell came to them and said there needed to be something different, he said. "The city of Bradenton, Manatee, are important."

"We appreciate that," Smith said.

Gilbert Colon of the Small Business Administration, left, with Cesar Gomez, the executive director of the Latin Chamber of Commerce.

In Florida, Colon said, there are more than 17 million people and more than 1.5 million businesses. The South Florida District office, with 24 counties, has more than 11 million people and 1.2 million businesses.

The west coast area, nine counties from Pasco to Charlotte counties, has 350,000 businesses, he said. "Is that important? Darn right it's important," he said.

"We need to partner with the chambers, we need to partner with the county," Colon said. "We need to partner so that we together we can go out and touch the people who need our help, entrepreneurs, small business people, etc."

Not going that route would lead to failure, he added.

"Today is an opportunity that we can seize to move forward," Colon said.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act gave the SBA $730 million, he said, and it offers features that are important to understanding the lenders' motivations.

The average loan guarantee is 75 percent. Under the reform act, that guarantee was raised to 90 percent temporarily. The fees were eliminated, too, he said.

He talked about two borrowers, one of whom was initially rejected for a loan but then got accepted. The important thing was the result, Colon said, because one of the businesses hired 11 people.

The community needs to avail itself of other SBA programs that can help. "We believe that there's a need for a venture capital entity within your boundaries that would be supportive," he said. "The SBA program ensured that FedEx exists, Ben & Jerry's" and others.

Another program that could have good results would be the export program and international trade. "I think that's the future," he said. "Tourism and housing, no. You can't depend on that. You saw what that did."

Colon said that the SBA is working to eliminate discrimination in lending so that people who qualify but have a hard time getting loans have access to capital.

"I want to be your partner," he said, through the CEDC or whatever.

"Well, we want to have you as a partner," Smith said. "I'm vice mayor, but I also own a small business, and know a lot of people that own small businesses and I think that's a description of what I see here in the city of Bradenton. We're elected officials and we have constituents who want us to provide programs to bring our economy back and to help make our community better. Those constituents also are small business people, just like we as elected officials are, outside of our government jobs, and it's important that we're able to revitalize our community and provide more jobs."

The area has suffered disproportionately from the real estate meltdown, Smith said, and many local construction workers are without jobs. "We appreciate your efforts," he said.

Colon told Smith he has high hopes for the new memorandum.

"My expectation is a lot of things are going to happen," he said.

Helping the veterans

Colon said that before the stimulus, the default rate on the SBA loans was about 3 percent.

"We still don't have enough data about what the recovery act loans are doing," he said.

He's been with the SBA for 13 years, and in government for 23 years. Before SBA, he was the director of the Minority Business Development Agency for the Department of Commerce under the late Ron Brown. A graduate of Aviation High School in New York City, he served in the military and worked in business.

Small business is on Obama's mind, Colon said.

"Everything you hear from this president exactly talks about that. The agency has received $730 million. People say, 'That's not enough,' but it's a start," he said. "Will there be more? I'm hoping so.

"This administration and our administrator, Karen Mills, clearly believes that the way to come out of this in success is to support our small businesses. We are the backbone of America. We are the driving engine of the economy."

There's a focus on veterans coming back into civilian life, he said, and they're working with Veterans Affairs and even the U.S. Southern Command to help not only veterans but also their spouses to avail themselves of the programs the SBA offers.

Latin Chamber chief visits

Gomez, the head of the Latin Chamber, said Latino businesses suffer from a lack of opportunities and credit, are often not big enough and are not in place long enough to qualify for SBA help. Also, he said, there may be a lack of trust.

"The issue with the community is they don't understand us, and don't trust government in general," Colon said. "We need to break those barriers."

Programs in Spanish could help Latino entrepreneurs, he said, and he promised to bring counseling and training to bear for the community.

"We're going to pull out all the stops," Colon said. "We think that Manatee and Bradenton, they need us here."

Gomez said that he and his organization are working to build trust in the community so entrepreneurs they can avail themselves of the services available.

"I encourage you to test us," Colon said.


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