ST. GEORGE — St. George Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO, Don Willie, stepped up to the podium as an audience of 50 chose to stand in the sun rather than sit in the shade.
Willie, along with officials from St. George, Salt Lake City, and others who own or serve small businesses, gathered to celebrate the opening of the Small Business Administration satellite office, located in the Federal Building at 196 Tabernacle St.
“This office will help in difficult times,” Willie said. “It will also help in time of prosperity. We’ve got to remember how important small businesses are to the economy and the community.”
The SBA’s press release said that over 99% of businesses in Utah are small. Though 22% of the nation’s small businesses have closed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, officials marveled at Washington County’s relatively low closure rate, which stands at 6%.
The SBA helps businesses apply for loans administered by the federal government, including Economic Injury Disaster Loans and funds from the Payroll Protection Program, which have saved many small businesses from closing their doors.
“This is a difficult time,” said SBA Regional Administrator Dan Nordberg, who traveled from Denver for the event. “It’s important to have support at the local level. There are so many small businesses here, and they deserve to be able to find the support they need in their community.”
St. George ranks number 42 on the Forbes 2019 list of best small cities for business and careers, and number one in job growth. Still, opening this SBA office in St. George presented its challenges.
“This project is three years in the making,” Nordberg said. “Sustainable funding is always a challenge. Even with St. George’s great business community, and strong growth, I still had to work to convince our leadership this was necessary.”
Nordberg said that, ultimately, business owners in the area shouldn’t have to drive 4 1/2 hours to make use of the SBA’s services in Salt Lake City.
“This office will ensure that we bring resources to this community,” Nordberg said. “This way, we’re going to be able to collaborate with the small business community on a day-to-day basis.”
SBA District Director of Utah, Marla Trollan, was proud of the office for many reasons. To begin with, she’s excited that the opening means that the SBA will need to hire a senior Area Manager.
“We’re hoping to have that position filled by January,” Trollan said. “The ideal candidate will understand SBA’s programs and services, and how to put them to use to help local business owners. So, they’ll be a fixture in this community.”
Both Nordberg and Trollan stressed that the office intends to reach out to businesses in rural areas in Southwestern Utah.
“Doing outreach in those communities is one of the reasons this project got approval,” Trollan said. “There are so many businesses and entrepreneurs that can benefit from what we do.
To that end, Trollan said she was also trying to generate more interest in the SBA’s 8(a) program, which provides assistance to small, disadvantaged businesses.
Parker Bennett, co-owner of Solid Ground, the general contractor in charge of various projects at the federal building, said that the 8(a) program has been instrumental in keeping Solid Ground afloat during the pandemic.
“We’ve been working with the SBA for over our years, now” Bennett said. “It’s been great. Keeps us busy, and we all get to eat.”
Bennett joked, but he’s been doing some serious projects.
“The 8(a) program helps businesses get federal contracts, among other services, for an 8-year period,” Trollan said.
The 8(a) program helped Solid Ground win a contract to renovate Zion National Park’s south gate. Bennett and company also did some tile work for Senator Mitt Romney.
“We’re proud of those jobs, and thankful for the 8(a) program,” Bennett said.
Before stepping down from the podium, Willie expressed his gratitude for what he called “innovative leadership,” while reminding the audience that Apple started in a garage.
“And let’s not forget that the founders of FedEx were the first to realize that the quickest way to get from San Francisco to Los Angeles was through Memphis,” Willie said. “Small business owners bring innovation to our communities. Even though the times are hard, they’re not going away. They’re arriving.”
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