By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)
As the city’s small businesses have grown and solidified their dominant role in Alexandria’s economy, the Small Business Development Center has helped every step of the way.
When it comes to counseling, information and training on everything from how to start a small business, manage it and grow it, the SBDC has played a leading role.
And last month, the center celebrated a significant milestone of its own, as December 17 marked the 20th anniversary of its official opening.
Executive director Bill Reagan got the ball rolling in 1994, when he met with then-city councilors Lois Walker and Bill Euille, and told them about a lack of resources available to help those looking to start a small business. Once an employee at a marketing corporation, Reagan was looking to begin independent consultancy in the city, but did not know where to turn.
Meanwhile, then-state Sen. Patsy Ticer was able to secure funds for Alexandria from the Virginia General Assembly under a program that looked to add SBDCs in communities not already served by one.
With funding secured and an enthusiastic city council approval, Reagan became the center’s first and so far only executive director in 1996. Initially, the center’s offices were based at George Washington University’s Graduate Education Center on Duke Street, then in 1999 moved into the same building as the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce.
Now, the SBDC shares office space with the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership and tourism authority Visit Alexandria among other entities on North Washington Street.
In an interview this week, Reagan said the center has filled an important need in the city since its early days. The nonprofit provides resources on all manner of subjects for small businesses, including on human resources, social media among others.
“I had met [Walker and Euille] and mentioned to them that I could not find any resources in the city of Alexandria that were helpful to small businesses, to answer questions and such,” he said. “When a person is starting a small business, there are a lot of hurdles to leap and questions that you have. I couldn’t find any resources for that.
“I knew that Arlington had a small business development center at the time, so they started meeting with me to talk about if there could be a small business resource in the city of Alexandria.”
In those 20 years, the center has done a great deal to assist small businesses. According to statistics provided by the SBDC, it has provided more than 5,000 people with information about small business, and given personal counseling to more than 2,000 people.
SBDC clients reported a total of more than $160 million in increased sales from the prior year, and 6,400 jobs either were created or saved thanks to the center’s help. The resources have helped support that business growth, including impartial advice from a bevy of experts.
“The SBDC has provided our company with access to resources we, as a small business, would not otherwise have,” said Sheri Dougherty of management consultants Dougherty & Associates in a statement. “We rely upon SBDC services to enhance our decision-making abilities, and provide impartial financial guidance — unbiased by sales motivations. We trust the integrity and expertise of the center to support us in positioning our company to grow, and creating the foundation from which we build our firm — strong and successful.”
Reagan also pointed to a total of $71 million in business loans secured by SBDC clients from local banks to help start their ventures. Business analyst Jack Parker helps entrepreneurs prepare to present their case to the loan officer and provide realistic financial projections.
“Jack Parker has been a wonderful mentor to me over the years,” said Kerri Chase of day care center Bright Start Learning Center in a statement. “As my business has matured, I have had less need of the services of the SBDC, but I am grateful that the SBDC is there when I need it. I have referred several entrepreneurs to the SBDC because the assistance and mentorship I received from those at the SBDC — Jack in particular — made my business possible 10 years ago.”
And for businesses without much historical precedent, the SBDC has proven to be an invaluable resource. The soon-to-be-opened Portner Brewhouse on the West End will be the city’s first brewpub serving Prohibition-era beer as well as food, and co-owner Margaret Portner said Reagan’s help has been invaluable in what has been a tricky permitting process with the city.
“The city’s been really supportive of everything, and Bill Reagan is fantastic,” she said. “He’s been so nice, and a really great cheerleader. The city itself has been really supportive in my opinion. Sometimes permitting does take a little bit longer, but I would say that’s definitely for us different from most people, because there’s no brewpubs in Alexandria. So a lot of the questions, there’s no previous precedent on how they would go about it.”
Reagan said that as yet, there are no concrete plans for celebrating the anniversary, but that he and his board of directors are working on something to ensure the “biggest bang” in the city.
(Disclosure: Reagan writes a monthly column for the Times, and the newspaper used the services of Jack Parker in 2015.)