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Small firms getting a boost

S.L. County offers training, loan programs and networking help

Money and opportunity were scarce for Sudanese refugee Alual Majok when she decided to bring a little bit of flavor from her native country to Utah.

Majok's visions of a Sudanese catering businesses in the middle of the annual downtown Farmers Market were just out of reach as she found herself $500 short to buy the rest of the needed equipment and food.

After explaining her dilemma to the state's Small Business Administration, Majok quickly found herself with a $500 check from Salt Lake County and a promise to help her even more when she starts working on a full-blown Sudanese restaurant.

"They just wrote me a check and give it to me. I was surprised. He said, 'You're all set,' and I said, 'What?,' " said Majok, who has lived in Utah for five years with her four children. Her husband died before the family left Sudan.

"It's good for our country to be involved in the community. For me it's good to have something for Sudan in Utah."

Although Majok had less to work with than most business owners, economic development director Dale Carpenter said Salt Lake County's small business program helps people like Majok each year through a series of loan programs, training sessions and networking help.

With roughly 72 percent of the county's businesses having fewer than nine employees, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon says they are a top priority.

"Our local businesses are the real economic engines of our county," Corroon said after pitching a budget proposal this month to funnel $51,000 more toward training and workshops for small businesses.

That extra push for small business is needed now more than ever, Carpenter added, as the county's small businesses grow and more residents are trying to start up their own companies.

Roughly 30,000 businesses in the county fall into the small-business category, employing fewer than 20 people each. Small companies specializing in the biomedical field, information technologies and Web page design are some of the most common in the county, Carpenter said.

"It's sort of a global trend right now. It's a function of people being entrepreneurial and perhaps wanting to be their own boss and seeing a niche in the marketplace they think they can fill," Carpenter said. "We clearly are a magnet to small business in this county. "

Getting the funds to get those business up and running leads many people to the county's revolving loan fund for small businesses. Gordon Holt, who administers the county fund through Utah Business Lenders, said he usually grants the loans with competitive interest rates and sometimes overlooks bad credit to help credible business owners.

"The economy runs on little businesses. Anything that we can do to help little businesses helps the economy," Holt said. "Mayor Corroon understands that; he's been a businessman before. He understands how important little businesses are to making an economy work."

Although the county has more money to give, Holt said the challenge is getting start-up business owners to realize the county is an option for getting some capital cash. Majok, for example, received her relatively small loan of $500 at a 9 percent interest rate and with an agreement to pay back $25 a month.

The county's loans usually come in larger chunks of thousands, Holt added, but can be crafted to fit any business owner. The revolving fund has about $1.7 million to loan.

"I've still got money left. I'd love to loan some more of that out. It doesn't do any good in our bank account," Holt said. "The money helps the community when we put it back in to businesses."

In addition to financing, Carpenter said the county also has been pushing recently to offer more networking conferences to match business owners to potential clients. Training workshops also allow entrepreneurs a chance to craft business plans and solidify the vision of their business.

"Getting it down on paper makes them exact about what they want to do and make sure they're not embarking on something that's doomed from the get-go," Carpenter said. "You want to zero your business in on finding your best opportunities for success."

The state's Small Business Administration also offers loans for Utah companies, giving out about 769 loans in Salt Lake County last year. Those loans, totalling about $134 million, range from a few thousand dollars to some as large as $2 million, SBA District Director Stan Nakano said.

That number of loans is up from 702 last year, Nakano added, when the group gave out 702 loans in the county. "For small businesses, we think it's very good. They continue to utilize our assistance and our loan volume keeps increasing every year," he said.