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Springfield's SBA branch office thrives in tough times

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by Kris Ann Hegle

SBJ Contributing Writer

It's Small Business Week. Do you know what your SBA branch office is doing?

The U.S. Small Business Administration provides financial assistance, business education and training, and a variety of special programs that aid small businesses. Created as an independent federal agency in 1953, the SBA has a national network of 10 regional offices, 69 district offices, 16 branch offices, approximately 1,000 Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs), 43 Business Information Centers, 21 tribal Business Information Centers and nearly 800 Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) locations, which have 12,400 volunteers providing free one-on-one counseling.

Missouri has three SBA offices. While the SBA offices in Kansas City and St. Louis provide a wide range of services, the Springfield branch office mainly provides loans, business information, guidance and counseling, according to James Combs, branch manager here.

Although the SBA no longer makes direct loans, its 7(a) Loan Guaranty Program, which covers different types of business loans, encourages lenders to make loans to small businesses. Under the 7(a) Loan Guaranty Program, the SBA agrees to guarantee a major portion of the loan, protecting the lender should the borrower default.

Given the scope of loan services provided including long-term, fixed rate loans for fixed assests, mircroloans and loans to address Y2K computer problems it's not surprising that most of the eight employees at the Springfield office spend a great deal of time working with 100 main banks in more than 300 locations in a 28-county area. But helping businesses with their financing is just one of the services provided.

Many entrepreneurs contact the SBA to get counseling, training and technical assistance.

Some of the counseling is done by volunteers from local SCORE chapters. SBDCs at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield and West Plains and at Missouri Southern State College in Joplin also provide business information and help filling out loan applications.

Although it provides valuable resources to the local business community, the Springfield SBA office faced closure four years ago, Combs said.

In 1995, then-SBA Administrator Phil Lader tried to implement a national reorganization plan that would have left the SBA with one office in each state.

Opposition by members of the business community, lending institutions and others thwarted the effort.

"For a while there, we didn't know what was going to happen," Combs said. "I think one thing that saved us was that we were able to show that our office outperformed many larger district offices and produced more loans than several states (as a whole), including Arkansas."

Although there hasn't been any talk lately about closing more SBA offices, staffing at the Springfield office hasn't increased since 1995.

According to Combs, in 1995, the SBA's national budget was cut by 25 percent. In 1998, the SBA's national budget was slightly more than $800 million, and the projection for fiscal year 2000 is $920 million.

"It's taken four years to regain the ground we lost," said Combs. "The past few years, we've added services and implemented new loan programs despite having a no-growth budget. Right now, the SBA provides a wide range of services, but we would like to see the focus narrowed."[[In-content Ad]]

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