By Olivia Anderson | firstname.lastname@example.org
At the end of this month, Bill Reagan, the executive director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, will retire following 25 years of service to Alexandria’s business community.
Reagan founded the SBDC in 1996, and since then the center has worked to strengthen independent businesses in the city through free counseling and educational opportunities for both new and seasoned entrepreneurs.
Twenty-five years and more than 90,000 consulting hours later, Reagan said he is ready to step aside and explore new ventures in life.
“I’m looking at the opportunities in my life to do new things, and I feel that it’s a good juncture coming out of the pandemic where there’s kind of a reset for almost everyone for the Small Business Development Center to have new leadership and take new approaches perhaps, and for me to look at new opportunities and new opportunities for the rest of my life,” Reagan said.
Reagan officially retires on Jan. 31 and will leave behind a legacy of bolstering Alexandria’s business economy, but the organization began humbly with a conversation between Reagan and then Councilors Lois Walker and Bill Euille. Reagan had recently been thinking about the excitement and importance of small businesses in the city, which at the time he felt didn’t have enough resources to thrive.
After a year of working closely with City Council and local leadership to find funding, the SBDC was born, and Reagan was encouraged to apply for the only staff position at the time. He got the job and began in December 1996.
“It was me answering phones and meeting with businesses and trying to develop a library and trying to develop checklists and trying to develop resources, so it was a bit overwhelming at the start, but it gradually grew in support and funding over the years,” Reagan said.
The SBDC proved its value in the community, secured more funding from sources like the Chamber of Commerce and various banks and was eventually able to hire additional employees to provide consulting services for small businesses.
Reagan noted that these services are especially important for small businesses, since they often don’t have the luxury of handing off challenges to specialized departments. In fact, 90% of Alexandria’s businesses have fewer than 20 employees, Reagan said.
“There are legal matters or marketing matters or accounting matters [and] the small business owner is great at what they do, but they just don’t always have expertise in that particular area,” Reagan said. “What we do at the Small Business Development Center is help them when they come to us, give them objective feedback and connect them with expertise that can advise them on how to deal with the questions that are arising.”
Cal Simmons, an entrepreneur who ran an Alexandria travel agency and leads a monthly meeting for community business leaders, has worked closely with Reagan for many years. He called Reagan a “visionary” for creating the SBDC, an organization that Simmons said was “sorely needed” in the city.
“There wasn’t really a group that was set up to roll up their sleeves and help a business get established here, and Bill created that,” Simmons said. “A lot of people have good ideas, but execution is what really makes the difference. … Lots of organizations have some meetings and give lip service to improvements, but rolling up your sleeves and getting the job done is a different story. Bill has always been terrific at that.”
The SBDC has been there for local businesses through thick and thin. Specifically, Reagan recalled how the SBDC sprang into action during various catastrophic circumstances, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Hurricane Isabel and 9/11.
The latter event caused a countrywide shutdown and because Alexandria relies heavily on tourism, Reagan said the city’s economy imploded. Then, a year later when Hurricane Isabel hit, many businesses were devastated by flooding. In both instances, the SBDC helped businesses complete applications for disaster loans. According to Reagan, the largest proportion of disaster loans approved in the Washington metropolitan area came from businesses the SBDC assisted.
“When Isabel hit, Bill was out on the streets with the water on the streets, and was with the governor at the time, walking the streets and trying to find ways to help businesses,” Jack Parker, a business consultant with the SBDC since 1998, said. “Businesses need someone who is proactive, and Bill is proactive. He’s gonna get out there, whatever occurs, whether it’s an economic downturn or whatever it might be, making sure businesses have what they need.”
More recently, the SBDC stepped in during the pandemic to help businesses apply for disaster loans and funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security and American Rescue Plan acts.
Reagan said that providing assistance during the pandemic was much less straightforward and hands-on than with the previous events. Although the SBDC could guide businesses toward recovery programs and answer questions, it was unable to directly assist with applications, which Reagan said proved to be “discouraging.”
“No one had a blueprint for this. There was no template, and the whole world was impacted by COVID. We all had to make very quick decisions and do things drastically different, and it took a lot of ingenuity on everyone’s part,” Reagan said. “When we look back on this, for as challenging as these two plus years have been, I think we have really risen to the occasion, and I think we deserve to feel a great deal of satisfaction in how well we’ve managed really unpredictable circumstances.”
Reagan pointed out that city government, both before and during the pandemic, works very closely with all local economic development programs. This close-knit communication and willingness to adapt as the city evolves – exemplified by council’s decision to make the 100 block of King Street into a pedestrian only zone – is a distinctive quality that separates Alexandria from many other cities, according to Reagan.
“[The city] made those very big changes in policies and procedures on the fly, and it made a difference in our businesses being able to survive,” Reagan said.
One of the many aspects of small business that has kept Reagan so engrossed in the small business community over the years is its effect on both the city’s economy and its character. Reagan said that small businesses provide about half of the city’s growth receipts. He also expressed gratitude that Alexandria is a supportive community for businesses to come and grow.
“When you think of Alexandria, you think of the small businesses. That’s what provides its charm and that’s what fits into its old historic spaces, so small businesses are really important in the city,” Reagan said.
Outside of the SBDC, the more than 30-year resident has recently been named an Alexandria Living Legend. He started business-council exchanges to connect small business leaders and councilors, visited entrepreneurial classes and connected Virginia Tech students to small businesses for school projects.
Reagan also participated in the National Harbor Task Force, which was formed by the Chamber of Commerce and worked to attract city tourism with the opening of the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center.
Many thought the new center would negatively affect the city’s visitors, so the task force was formed to leverage the development. Born from the task force were several additions such as the King Street trolley and the water taxi service, which still runs between National Harbor and Alexandria today.
“The impression [was] that it was going to open up across the river and it was going to be a giant sucking sound for our economy here,” Reagan said. “ … National Harbor became a boon to Alexandria by virtue of the fact that we were old and historic and National Harbor is very modern and new, so people would say, ‘Let’s go over and see that.’”
The collaborative partnerships Reagan built with City Council and other economic development groups will be hard to leave behind, Reagan said. He also emphasized that he will dearly miss his colleagues, staff and consultants who provide expertise at the SBDC and the small business owners, who he said “have been very inspirational to me.”
For Reagan, his future still involves some sort of community engagement using his expertise, though he said he hasn’t made concrete plans just yet. Higher up on his immediate priority list is visiting west coast national parks and spending time with loved ones.
“I have a lot of experience in the different connections that are important for businesses to make in the community, and I want to be able to apply those where they can be helpful, but I have not figured out, at this stage in the game, exactly how I want to do that,” Reagan said. “I’m looking forward to just deciding what I want to do and when and how I want to do it, and then I will bring all of those principles into play to figure out what happens next.”