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Columbia County is one of few Oregon counties without a Small Business Development Center location

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Columbia County has fewer small businesses per capita than most other Oregon counties.Columbia County is on its way to having a small business resource center.

Local business owners have been served by a hodgepodge of various public and private programs for years, but unlike most other Oregon counties, there hasn't been a dedicated program to provide coaching and workshops for small business owners.

Only a handful of Oregon's 36 counties don't have a Small Business Development Center, a federal designation that provides funding, or a satellite location of a center. Columbia County is one of only two counties with populations larger than 13,000 that don't have an SBDC office.

SBDCs are typically run through community colleges. Though most of Columbia County is within Portland Community College's service district, the college-run SBDC hasn't had a local presence.

At its Portland locations, PCC's center has served an average of five to 10 Columbia County businesses each year, according to the center's director, Tammy Marquez-Oldham.

Columbia Economic Team is now in the process of establishing a local SBDC, in hopes of helping local businesses establish themselves and stay in business.

The model that Columbia Economic Team (formerly Columbia County Economic Team) is pursuing is different from most other SBDCs in that it won't be run through a community college.

Paul Vogel, the economic team's executive director, said that discussions initially started about establishing a small business resource center — without the federal Small Business Administration's official SBDC designation.

In initial planning conversations, Vogel said, "We were just saying, 'Look, we're going to develop a resource center for small businesses. And we're going to hire an advisor who knows how to help small businesses. And we will partner wherever we can, we'll get resources wherever we can. But PCC has never established an SBDC here, and we're not going to count on them doing it now. So we're going to do a Small Business Resource Center.'"

But PCC connected Vogel with the Oregon Small Business Development Center Network, and network staff liked Columbia Economic Team's plan enough to invite them into the network, which opens up stable funding and provides access to the resources like software and trainings.COURTESY PHOTO - Paul Vogel

Vogel said the idea for a local SBDC emerged from a series of pandemic relief grant programs for local businesses.

Vogel said that he saw and heard the wide range of business needs — beyond an influx of cash — through working with local businesses who were applying for grants.

"When we moved to helping the county do their last grant round in December, several people said, 'Jeez, why don't you guys invest in a small business center? Instead of just giving grants, put that money into something — instead of just giving them a fish, teach people to fish?'" Vogel said.

Though survival for many businesses has felt like fishing in an empty pond — unsuccessful no matter how perfect the cast or lure — all the grants in the world won't keep a business afloat if the owner doesn't understand their own finances or supply chain.

Most often, the owners of small businesses aren't serial entrepreneurs who are strategically deciding what business venture to pursue, but rather people who "buy a business or start a business because they like what that business is or does," Vogel said.

At times, small business owners will end up in that position after working for the business or having the business passed down from family, "which means they may not have even started with the intention of being in business or have a business education," Vogel said. "They're doing a great job of running things out of their native intelligence … but things start getting complex with finance."

Vogel said the grant application process showed that some local business owners weren't able to answer seemingly straightforward questions about their business' finances.

"That's not to say that somebody's not smart; that's simply saying that's not how they look at it," Vogel said. "But if you're going to go get financing, or you're going to partner with anyone, or you want to do better planning around your supply chain, or the seasonality or workforce, there's some really fundamental things that have to be in place."

Columbia County is home to 1,331 businesses with fewer than 50 employees, state employment department data show. But neighboring Clatsop County, despite having roughly 11,000 fewer residents, has 1,715 small businesses.

Per capita, Columbia County is in the bottom four rankings for number of small businesses across Oregon, July 2021 data shows.

As the pandemic put a strain on local businesses and their employees, some resources for those business owners dwindled. The South County Chamber of Commerce laid off its executive director early in the pandemic. Resources for local businesses have been pushed to virtual formats — to many, even less appealing than making the trip into Portland for business advising.

In the grant process, business owners were turning to Columbia Economic Team for more than just money, despite CET having no track record in small business advising. "If people are turning to us with no background, no brand, no equity in that market, it's a pretty good indicator that they're looking for somebody to talk to," Vogel said.

CET has secured part of the funding for a four-year, $175,000-per-year startup phase through the SBDC network, which includes $75,000 per year in state funds and $33,000 per year from U.S. Small Business Administration funds, according to Oregon SBDC network director Mark Gregory.

More requests are still pending, including the appropriations bill currently in the U.S. Senate, which passed the House with $175,000 for the project, earmarked by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici.

City councils and Columbia County commissioners are still reviewing requests from CET, asking them to contribute some of their American Rescue Plan Act dollars. St. Helens has already committed $50,000 from ARPA funds.

CET's plan involves an SBDC inside a Small Business Resource Center, which would allow for some resources that don't fit squarely in the expectations for an SBDC.

SBDC advisors are usually part-time, working around 25 hours a week, but CET plans to hire a full-time business advisor who can commit those 25 hours each week to the advising, training, and one-on-one coaching that an SBDC offers, and use the rest of the week visiting all parts of the county, building relationships and doing outreach.

"The imperative to have something like this came out of the pandemic," Vogel said. "Well, this wall of money to help small businesses is also coming out of the pandemic. And it's kind of a nice convergence, because there's money available that wouldn't have been available before."


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