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Help available for struggling small businesses
Tony Montes, right, 15, shows a skateboard deck to his brother Angel, 7, and mother Beatriz Monday as the family shops inside The Upper Deck Skate Shop in Gainesville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Small Business Administration for Georgia:
Small Business Development Center in Gainesville:
SCORE Atlanta:

Mary Paglia credits a strong customer base for helping her keep the doors open while many small businesses are struggling in a down economy.

“So far, I’ve been OK,” said Mary Paglia, owner of The Upper Deck Skate Shop on Main Street. “I’ve been more conservative about buying and am not prebooking merchandise, but I have a large Hispanic customer base that is steady.”

Paglia, who started the business seven years ago when her sons were interested in skateboarding, said interest is cultural and consistent. She’s happy her business remains afloat from customer support.

“I like to keep it a cash business with no loans or government funding,” she said. “I like remaining independent.”

But for those business owners not as fortunate as Paglia, there is help in the form of federal funds and business training from the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Changes made to SBA loan programs as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act eliminate loan fees, encourage bank investment and boost training programs. The bill, passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in February, provides $730 million to eliminate fees on SBA-backed loans, raise the guarantee percentage for banks to 90 percent and help small businesses meet existing debt payments.

Between Feb. 17 and July 3, the state approved 356 loans for $220 million, said David Perry, Southeast region communications director.

“There was a pretty consistent decrease in lending at the end of last year, but since the Recovery Act became law, we’ve seen a week over week increase of 30 percent,” he said. “This is a positive direction we’re heading in, and the tide is turning.”

Perry said Gainesville area businesses also can benefit from training at the Small Business Development Center in Gainesville and SCORE Atlanta, which has 13 offices in the state.

“First and foremost, we deal with individual business consulting because every business is different,” said Ron Simmons, Gainesville area director for SBDC. “We’ve had a lot more people in the last year and a half seeking marketing advice, as you would expect, that takes the form of ‘How do I get more customers?’ and ‘How do I sell more to the customers that I have?’”

Gary Hopkins, owner of Plastek Werks in Cleveland, said the center was instrumental in starting his first business in the early 1990s and his second just two years ago.

“At first, they helped us with a strategic plan and to find our strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “We came back when we had outgrown our facility and said we were ready to go to the next step. We drafted another strategic plan for the new company with them.”

Hopkins said the center helped him to expand into the second business idea. His business portfolio shifted from Plastek Werks, which handles plastic fabrication, welding and repair, to include Storm Water Solutions, which creates cisterns, filters and barriers to stop debris from entering water sources.

“Small business owners tend to work with blinders on and a specific focus,” he said. “SBDC helped us to look at the bigger playing field.”