Growing Your Own
by Fred D. Baldwin
Business got off to a flying start last year at AJ's Landing, a restaurant located in the Greene County Airport in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. The restaurant—whose walls feature photos of classic airplanes and other flight memorabilia—opened in March 1997 at a site that had been vacant for almost a year. It now employs 19 people, plus its owner, Joyce Roberts. "Having my own restaurant is something I'd wanted to do for years," says Roberts. "I started with 12 people and was afraid I was overstaffed. I was understaffed."
Roberts is one of a growing list of small-scale entrepreneurs in Greene County whose ideas are starting to get off the ground, thanks to the Greene County outreach office of the University of Pittsburgh Small Business Development Center (SBDC). Greene County, whose population is approximately 40,000, is by far the smallest of three counties served by the SBDC. (The other two are Washington County, five times as populous as Greene, and Allegheny County, containing the city of Pittsburgh and far larger still.)
Greene County is not only small, it is also designated by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) as an economically distressed county. In 1997, a strategic economic development plan was prepared for the county by local officials, with help from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED); the plan highlighted a need for increasing assistance to entrepreneurs. A grant from ARC, matched with funding from the DCED, enabled the SBDC outreach office, then open one day per week, to function on a full-time basis. That's an important contribution to the county's long-term economic development strategy, according to Ann Bargerstock, director of Greene County's department of planning and development.
"Coal was king here for many years," Bargerstock says, "but in 15 to 20 years, there'll be no more coal. We'd love to have someone come to us and create two thousand jobs in one pop, but 'it ain't gonna happen.' So small business is very important to us. It's up to us to create a climate for growth."
Full-Time Help for Business Owners
The SBDC management consultant staffing the Greene County office is Jeanine M. Henry, a former bank officer. She's been on the job only since January, when the office opened full-time. Her predecessor was Raymond L. Vargo, SBDC assistant director, who in September 1996 was assigned to spend one day a week in Waynesburg. In a little over a year, Vargo opened 91 client files, revealing an unmet need that prompted Bargerstock, the Greene County commissioners, and SBDC director Ann Dugan to seek ARC support for full-time service in Greene County.
The SBDC provides, without charge, a wide range of assistance to actual and potential business owners. Many callers, often in existing businesses, just want quick answers to questions: "How do I get a sales tax number?" "Can you send me something on a 'sole proprietorship' versus a 'Subchapter S corporation'?" "What am I allowed to ask when I'm hiring a new employee?"
Individuals who think they want to open a business but lack experience are advised to attend the SBDC's two-hour training session "Mechanics of Starting a Small Business." For those who become actual clients, the staff offers help with developing a business plan, assistance with financing, and continued access to advice.
"This job fits uniquely with what I was doing before [as a bank officer]," Henry says, "but here I work on the front end. There are no two businesses exactly alike. Sometimes people think that all they have to do is open a door, and customers will come. Others are very advanced and will already have a narrative business plan."
During the first quarter of 1998, only one new business reached the financing stage, but Henry began working with 25 new clients. Depending on the potential of an idea and the experience of the would-be entrepreneur, the process of launching a business can take anywhere from a few months to a year. During 1997 the SBDC helped seven clients with financing proposals totaling $1,433,000, a significant sum for Greene County.
The new businesses helped by the SBDC are mostly in the service sector. They include, among others, a car wash, an auto body shop, an expanding household-pet business, and a bus company. The owners of these firms have high praise for the assistance they received.
Joyce Roberts, for example, had managed a coffee shop in the Greene County Memorial Hospital but says that she "didn't know the first thing" about running her own restaurant when she was dreaming about what became AJ's Landing. Her niece, a county employee, suggested that she contact Vargo on one of his days in Greene County.
"I couldn't have done it without Ray," Roberts says. "And if I have a question, he's still there for me."
From Employee to Entrepreneur
Harold King's experience has been similar. For years he worked as a mechanic for the area's electric utility, now Allegheny Power, and worked part-time as a mechanic and occasionally as a driver for John Dulaney, owner of a fleet of school buses and vans. When Dulaney was ready to retire, he urged King to take over his business.
Vargo not only helped King with a business plan and a somewhat complicated financing package, he also gave him weekly assignments on business-related issues. King did his homework faithfully.
"I'd never done this before and didn't know how to go about it," King says, reciting a long list of things he had to learn—state and federal safety regulations, licensing requirements, payroll management, and computer operations. "I never imagined what it was like. The paperwork and problems just kept coming. Without Ray I couldn't have done it."
King adds that the financial projections he and Vargo worked out are "almost right on the head." The upshot is that a school bus service that might have been sold to an out-of-area firm remains locally owned. In addition, the company's charter-bus business, which might otherwise have been dropped altogether, remains as an asset to the area economy.
Unlike Roberts and King, David Correia already had substantial business experience when he approached the SBDC for help. He had managed the Animal Tracks Pet Shop (which is owned by his wife, Lois) in Waynesburg since the store opened in 1988. But the couple needed financing to take advantage of the opportunity to buy a similar pet shop in a neighboring county. Conventional financing proved impossible since the business would have almost no collateral to offer beyond its inventory; a banker can scarcely justify making a loan secured mainly by parakeets, guppies, and iguanas. The SBDC helped to arrange a loan guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA).
"The SBA involvement has allowed us to approve a lot of loans that might have slipped through the cracks in the old days," says Ryan L. Hartley, assistant vice president and manager of the Mount Morris office (located in the southern end of Greene County) of the National City Bank of Pennsylvania. "We have a lot of people with good ideas, and we have customers who come into the bank who aren't ready to get a loan. More important than going into business is going into business and succeeding. The SBDC follow-up is very important to helping them stay in business, which is our goal."
In some instances the SBDC can provide start-ups with direct assistance from the SBA Microloan Program. Vargo mentions one successful loan to a woman opening a home-based secretarial service. A $3,000 loan for a computer and basic office supplies started her on the path to what is currently a successful one-person operation. For the most part, however, what the SBDC offers isn't money but a sort of tough love for fledgling entrepreneurs. "When you're a small-businessperson," says Vargo, "the hardest thing to do is ask for help. You have your ego on the line. Residents feel more comfortable when the consultant is part of the county."
Hartley, speaking from his perspective as a banker, stresses the importance of making an area-wide transition from being coal-industry dependent to having a highly diversified economy. He sees the SBDC presence as enabling Greene County residents to do that. He often refers not-quite-ready loan applicants to the SBDC and says, speaking both of Vargo and Henry, "I've never had a complaint from anyone I've sent."
King, reflecting on his personal transition from bus-fleet mechanic to bus-company owner, adds that access to someone local was critical to him. "How many people who want to do what I did," he asks, "would do it if they had to be running back to Pittsburgh a dozen times? I don't know if I could have done it without Ray being here. It's good that we have a full-time person now."
Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.