This is a story about being nimble.
Later this week an industrial warehouse in Missoula, which has been completely transformed, will reopen as Bitterroot Gymnastics – providing children and families throughout our community with a safe space to learn and practice.
While the concept of a big space for a gymnastics school isn’t necessarily innovative, the path to making it happen certainly has been.
Owner David Stark had done everything right. As a former student and then employee of the company, he already had extensive knowledge of the gym when he purchased it in 2005. Then, as an owner, he had worked hard to save costs, provide great service, and grow the business. Now that his work was paying off and his business was expanding, he simply needed more space. But he didn’t have the capital to expand. He knew that his business showed solid profits and great income potential, but he didn’t have strong collateral and so wouldn’t qualify for traditional financing.
When David came to visit Montana CDC, things fell into place. The US Small Business Administration had just come out with its new Community Advantage program. David became the first business owner in Montana and, in fact, the entire SBA region 8 to take advantage of it. Now Bitterroot Gymnastics is about to open a new gym and our community is about to see more jobs.
While we don’t always think of government agencies as being innovative or quick to react, the SBA’s Community Advantage program is a shining example of how good government and smart businesses can work together to make communities prosper.
SBA administrator Karen Mills explains that the Community Advantage program is a reaction to tightening credit markets. The program’s goal is to make more loans available to small business owners, minorities, and women in rural areas. The SBA has similarly reacted with products and programs in the wake of natural disasters such as flooding and hurricanes. It’s all about a government agency learning to serve customers and coexist in an ever-evolving marketplace – just like companies – big and small – must do all across the country.
This is the nimble part.
In Montana alone, the SBA lent out over $137 million dollars for businesses last year. They did it through lending partnerships with national and community banks and non-bank lenders like Montana CDC all across the state. The SBA also responded to businesses in need by providing disaster recovery loans, awarding grants and programs to help with technical assistance, and instituting training programs in entrepreneurship, business development and government contracting.
In January, President Obama elevated the Small Business Administration to a cabinet level position, with Karen Mills appointed as Cabinet Secretary. This is in conjunction with a proposal to consolidate the SBA with five other related agencies including the Department of Commerce, Office of the US Trade Representative, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the Trade Development Agency. The reasoning behind the consolidation is that it will ease the regulatory burden on businesses and save money from the duplication of services. The hope is that the new alignment will also increase cross-agency collaboration.
We like to think of it in business terms as a merger – that the government is acting as a company facing an ever-changing marketplace and agilely responding to best compete and provide services for its customers. We hope it is successful and that the SBA remains as innovative and competitive as they have proven to be here in Montana.
In the meantime, the SBA, banks, and non-bank lenders are out there reacting and responding to market conditions and working collaboratively to meet the needs of small businesses. By using innovative financing solutions like the Community Advantage program, borrowers who fall outside the traditional realm of bankability are now venturing into new product lines, expanding their locations, serving new markets, and creating new jobs for Montanans.
Montana business owners like David Stark often have a sophisticated understanding of their industry and their specific markets – they just need the capital to put their ideas for business growth in motion. Thankfully the SBA will continue to be there to spot them.