Big hopes for small businesses

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Pisgah Forest, an unincorporated town in Transylvania County 2,100 feet above sea level, is known for waterfalls, mountain wilderness and terrific hiking trails. It sits at the northeast corner of Brevard, a 30-minute drive from Asheville.

For 53 years, the Hawkins family has run the nearby Pisgah Fish Camp, a popular restaurant on Deavor Road. “People come to town because it’s a mountain-biking area, so we get tourists and we get locals,” says Mike Hawkins, who runs the restaurant with his siblings and is president of residential real estate company Pisgah Enterprises. “If you come to the fish camp at lunch time, you see people walking from table to table because they know each other. It’s a social groove for the community.”

Hawkins knows how the pandemic has affected small businesses in Transylvania County and elsewhere. He’s a former three-term county commissioner and knows big money doesn’t always trickle down, that being located in a rural area has consequences. And he’s heard about historically underutilized businesses efforts for enterprises owned by women or minorities that need assistance, too.

Hawkins says local shopkeepers and other businesses, regardless of location, need access to funding, infrastructure, mentoring and a general support system. “We need to ensure they have a fair chance to succeed,” he says.

Hawkins is a co-chair of the N.C. Rural Center’s 17-member small business advisory task force made up of people from across the state who have held meetings since August to brainstorm policy recommendations. 

They were assisted by the Kansas City, Mo.-based Kauffman Foundation, which assists communities with utilizing education and entrepreneurship to spur productivity gains. Other task force leaders include Vicki Parker-High, executive director of the North Carolina Business Council, and Brandy Bynum Dawson, director of policy and advocacy at the Rural Center. 

“The primary goal of the task force was to develop a list of sound policy recommendations and tactics that would ensure the resiliency of North Carolina’s small businesses, not just to survive the financial challenges brought on by COVID-19, but to endure future economic crises as well,” Parker-High says. “As co-chair, I felt it was important to facilitate the task force workgroups in such a way that would encourage diverse opinions and alternative perspectives about how to best support and develop our small businesses.” 

Input came from the N.C. Dept. of Commerce, Commissioner of Banks, community colleges, the EDPNC, Golden Leaf, N.C. Economic Development Association, SBTDC, N.C. Chamber, John Locke Foundation, Military Business Center, N.C. Justice Center and others.

 

The result: Four areas — funding, support, opportunity and knowledge — for state lawmakers to consider.

  • Funding: “If you look at small businesses across the state, [they] sponsor the Little Leagues; it’s not Bank of America or Duke Power, it’s Sarah’s Beauty Shop and Jeff’s Hardware. We need to ensure that they have a fair chance to succeed,” Hawkins says.

The task force’s recommendations included recommends subsidies for alternative financing sources, and special subsidies for HUBs and Community Development Financial Institutions that specialize in nontraditional lending; lobbying Congress to re-authorize the State Small Business Credit Initiative program, which helps underwrite small business loans; providing $9 million in recurring, annual funding for the One North Carolina Small Business Program and $5 million per year to strengthen and expand capacities of CDFIs; changing the Small Business Administration’s definition of “small business” from 500-or-fewer employees; and additional funding for programs through a dedicated segment of JDIG incentives.

 

“The inequitable distribution of funds during the first round of PPP loans demonstrated that a one-size-fit-all-businesses is not the best policy approach for addressing small business’ needs,” Parker-High says. “The last two rounds of funding lawmakers made attempts to better target small companies by directing funds to community banks and credit unions and by giving small businesses a head start to apply before opening applications up to all companies.”

  • Support: “I can tell you, if you’re opening your doors in a small-business setting, you spend your day going from one crisis to another,” Hawkins says. “Your toilet’s messed up, your roof is leaking, someone’s called in sick. It’s hard. You get immersed in operations, and it’s hard to find time to do the broader thinking. That’s the purpose of the Small Business Centers. They can point people in the right direction as far as strategic planning, and other issues. It’s a support structure.” 

    Health insurance for employees needs addressing, Hawkins says. “Small businesses don’t generate enough revenue or have masses on staff, so they often can’t provide health benefits for employees, and that’s a real issue. You lose your staff to larger businesses.” 

    The task force recommends fixing  the health insurance gap; adjusting the duration of state unemployment benefits; establishing work-sharing to the unemployment program, enabling workers to work part-time during economic downturns; creating a business-based broadband incentive program for underserved areas.

  • Opportunity: “The Small Business Centers are at every community college,” Hawkins says, adding that business owners need to be aware of their existence, and how to reach out. The task force recommends increasing  emphasis on downtown revitalizations; increasing emphasis for support of Latino small businesses; and increasing emphasis on HUBs and expanding their roles.
  • Knowledge: “How can we expand mentoring? One community college might provide a large level of service, but another might not have the time or is limited by being in another part of the state,” Hawkins says. “It might be that there’s an opportunity to consolidate more services.” 

    The task force recommends considering East Carolina University’s Accelerate Rural NC program as a template for university-based support; expanding the small-business Center network at community colleges; exploring consolidating resource information, possibly with an app portal; expanding public school career and technical education programs to introduce entrepreneurship in middle and high schools.“The average small business person may not know of the assistance available in their locality. How do they find out about it? How do they access it?” Hawkins says. “We need to let people know the resources exist.”

 

“North Carolina could best serve our small businesses by first recognizing and tracking the critical role they play in sustaining our economy,” Parker-High says. “Firms that are less than five years old create more new jobs than firms 10 years and older. Small businesses employ nearly half the workers in our state and make up more than 90 % of our companies. These numbers prove that small business is ‘big business,’ and should be supported by our policy leaders in every possible way.”

 

In Hawkins’ case, a 53-year-old small business has endured. “My brother and sister and I are in the business now, and I realize it’s something of an institution up here in terms of generations of people who have eaten at the camp, and when they come back on vacation they eat here, and their children have been here,” he says. “It’s a big part of what we do. 

 

“No one disagrees about the importance of small business in our economy. … Especially in rural areas, small businesses form the backbone of not just the economy but of the social health of the community. It’s not an easy sell [to the Legislature], but at least at this point, people really want to hear what we have to say.”

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