By Wafir Salih
The Alexandria Small Business Development Center, a significant support system for local business owners since its inception in 1996, abruptly shuttered its doors this summer. The Alexandria Center has officially merged with the George Mason SBDC, though many of its functions have been taken over by the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership.
The first inkling that change was afoot came on July 2 when the monthly Alexandria Small Business Bulletin came from the AEDP rather than the SBDC. The July bulletin, the first to come out after the start of the 2023-24 fiscal year on July 1, read:
“Welcome to the first small business newsletter of our new (fiscal) year – where you will start to see changes that reflect the work we have been doing to update and expand the services we offer to Alexandria small businesses.”
The bulletin made it clear that change was afoot without explicitly saying the Alexandria SBDC had been shuttered.
“While we will continue to work with the Virginia Small Business Development Centers network to provide the services so many Alexandria entrepreneurs have utilized, expect to see lots more about new and expanded offerings from our team and other partners who will be joining us in Alexandria,” the July bulletin from the AEDP read.
In June, the SBDC had sent out its regular bulletin, which listed upcoming events and other business related happenings and was printed using the regular Alexandria SBDC logo. There was no hint of a looming closure.
Both the June SBDC email and the July AEDP bulletin came from the email of Philomena Fitzgerald, who has the title “small business program manager” and is listed on the AEDP website, though with an SBDC email.
The official announcement the Alexandria SBDC had closed came from the Virginia SBDC and was dated August 7.
“Effective immediately, we are pleased to announce that the SBDC services in Alexandria will now be delivered by the [George] Mason SBDC. The Mason SBDC has a stellar track record in assisting entrepreneurs and small businesses in achieving their goals throughout NOVA,” the Virginia release, sent from statewide SBDC Director Jody Keenan, said.
The announcement went on to state that former banker Jack Parker, who had long consulted with businesses for the Alexandria SBDC, has moved to the Mason SBDC as a business analyst. Former Alexandria SBDC consultants Jennifer Gnaidy and Patra Frame will continue to assist local businesses as AEDP consultants, according to Elizabeth Bolton, AEDP’s vice president of strategic communications.
The change took place three months after the death of long-time SBDC Assistant Director Gloria Flanagan in May and about 18 months following the January 2022 retirement of Bill Reagan, who founded the Alexandria SBDC in 1996 and served as its executive director for more than 25 years.
“I was hoping [the Alexandria SBDC] would continue to be a focal point for small business economic development in the city of Alexandria. That was my hope,” Reagan said.
Reagan praised the Mason SBDC, but said something significant will be lost by businesses not being able to sit down and work in person with Small Business Development Center employees.
“The most effective economic development impact comes from getting directly involved with the business owners, one-to-one, tending to their issues and solving their problems. That’s what I believe is crucial to that small business owner,” Reagan said.
Reagan also expressed concerns that other regional resources might be helpful but primarily remote in their assistance.
“[Small businesses are] not looking for webinars and grant programs as much as they’re looking for connecting directly to resources they can use,” he said. “And that’s done best one-to-one. That’s my key point is the value of Alexandra SBDC was the one-to-one involvement with the businesses.”
The decision to shutter
Keenan and Bolton both said the decision to close the Alexandria SBDC came from the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership.
Keenan said she was notified in late spring of AEDP’s decision to close the Alexandria SBDC, but that it had been under consideration for some time.
“They let us know in June,” Keenan said. “Over the past couple of years, the city and AEDP have been looking at how they, as a city, can expand the services that they provide for small businesses. And in that kind of conversation and planning, they decided … they would not be running and managing the Alexandria Small Business Development Center.”
For much of its existence, the SBDC operated independently. The center did, however, work closely with AEDP for the past decade. Bolton spoke fondly about the SBDC.
“I’m really proud of the work that the organization did,” Bolton said. “It was co-located with AEDP for at least 10 years, I believe. It was a super close relationship.”
AEDP made the difficult decision to close the SBDC in late May this year. Bolton said multiple factors played a part in the decision – the pandemic being chief among them.
“COVID really laid bare the needs of the business community and [what needs] were and were not being met and who was being served,” Bolton said. “Like the most recent City Council election, they came in with clear ideas about how we could and should better serve the businesses in our community. When you add all of that together, that really led us to step back [and] take a look at how we wanted to do things.”
Bolton also said a big reason AEDP shut down the center was so they could bring everything under one roof and maximize funding opportunities for businesses.
“We feel like this arrangement where we brought everything in house lets us devote 100% of City Council funding to servicing our local businesses in the ways that they need to be serviced,” Bolton said.
The Alexandria SBDC assisted a long list of leading Alexandria businesses in its 27 years of existence. Reagan said their list of clients included the Potomac Riverboat Company, St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub, Cheesetique, Pork Barrel BBQ, Red Barn Mercantile, fibrespace, Scramble among many others.
The Alexandria Times also utilized the Alexandria SBDC on two occasions, and Parker in particular provided useful guidance.
Reagan shared an inspiring story of a business owner whose venture thrived, partly due to assistance she received from Alexandria SBDC.
“She came to us having worked in New York at the World Trade Center after 9/11 and helping identify human remains, and she needed help in setting up her own business,” Reagan recounted.
Flanagan helped the businesswoman with setting up her consulting practice. Together, Reagan and Flanagan put the businesswoman in touch with a government contracting consultant to help get her government contracts. Later, when the entrepreneur had questions about needing help hiring
and firing people, they connected her with a human resources consultant.
“She eventually got a $100 million dollar contract,” Reagan said. “She eventually sold the business to another corporation, but she still works with it. I ran into her during the summer, and she said: ‘I cannot believe how much help Alexandria Small Business Development Center has given me. Now the corporation is still looking for larger space, and I am insisting that they look for it in the city of Alexandria!’”
Reagan emphasized the SBDC’s mission was to offer tailored support to local businesses. While acknowledging that not every business achieved the same extraordinary success as this business owner, many did experience significant growth due to the center’s support.
“Not every business was as successful as hers was in getting government contracts, but it was an example of businesses who took our guidance and advice that was focused on individual attentions, solving the problems of those individual business owners, rather than just referring them to a website or referring them to a distant resource that made a difference in those,” Reagan said.
AEDP is currently working in coordination with the city to come up with a new version of a grant program for businesses and is exploring different programs to assist businesses. According to AEDP’s Director of Small Business and Entrepreneurship Cristina Amoruso, businesses should expect more news on the matter soon.
“We are planning a launch sometime in mid-November,” she said. “We know that businesses are eager to receive assistance, and we definitely want to let them know that we are here to help them.”
Bolton asserted that all SBDC resources would continue under AEDP, but she did not offer specific details.
“All programs are being retained, just delivered in a way more appropriately tailored to the local needs of local businesses,” Bolton said in an email.
Keenan acknowledged the challenges that transitions pose but reaffirmed the commitment to supporting Alexandria’s small businesses.
“There’s always a transition with change, but we continue to be available and support the Alexandria small businesses and look forward to working with AEDP and others in the city to do the very same thing: support small businesses in Alexandria,” Keenan said.
Laurence Smallman, owner of Scramble, was taken aback by the news of Alexandria SBDC’s closure, given its pivotal role in the success of his business.
“I am very surprised to hear that the Alexandria SBDC has closed. It provided invaluable help to me as I started planning the business that became Scramble,” Smallman said in an email. “I opened in Alexandria on Eisenhower Ave in November 2017. Without the help of the SBDC, I don’t think my business would have succeeded as well as it has.”
Dylan Raycroft, co-owner of Rooftop Chimney Sweeps, echoed a similar sentiment.
“I was shocked and sad to hear the news about SBDC closing,” Raycroft said in an email to the Times. “I’ve met many good friends there who I continue to send business back and forth with, and to talk and share our best ideas with each other. I think our city will be poorer without the SBDC, and who will especially suffer are local entrepreneurs who are tied into the community and are willing to risk their own time and capital to build something right here.”
However, Alexandria small business owner Danielle Romanetti, owner of fibrespace, pushed back on the notion that services will be diminished with the closure of the Alexandria SBDC.
“While technically SBDC is gone, the small business department here in Alexandria has doubled in size and moved under an existing and well staffed and well funded city organization – AEDP,” Romanetti said in an email to the Times. “All services that SBDC offered are now under AEDP while we are now, as a city, taking advantage of Mason’s SBDC services. Anyone wanting information about operating specifically in Alexandria, has more services than ever before right here in the small business program at AEDP.”
Reflecting on the ongoing transition, Reagan expressed admiration for the Mason SBDC.
“Mason SBDC is an excellent resource with a great reputation. I don’t have any concerns about the quality of the help that Alexandria business owners receive there,” Reagan said.
While local businesses will still have useful resources, Reagan said something is definitely lost with the closing of the Alexandria SBDC.
“Every time we met with small businesses in the city of Alexandria, we made it very clear that the free assistance they were getting from us was courtesy of the city of Alexandria,” Reagan said. “And I think … a lot of small businesses [felt] appreciation for the city that funded our operation.”