With some of the highest unemployment in the state, it would seem that Grays Harbor needs all the help it can get with growing new businesses.
And yet, the Small Business Development Center, which assists entrepreneurs and existing businesses on the Harbor at no expense, was recently almost closed for good.
Congressman Derek Kilmer said he was dismayed to receive surprise notice from Washington State University that the Small Business Development Center located at Grays Harbor College — alongside one in Port Angeles — would be closing in January due to funding issues and a need to consolidate staff throughout the state.
“In Grays Harbor we don’t have Boeing and Microsoft, we have small business … these resources are really, really important,” said Kilmer, adding he decided to meet with WSU’s Small Business Development Center to discuss the problem and argue in favor of the center.
He said WSU President Elson Floyd was extremely receptive to his concerns that the decision was not in the best interest of the state, or in particular, the region.
“(Floyd) said to me, ‘We will do what we have to do,’ ” Kilmer said.
The university has decided to cover the costs — including the wages of the center’s advisers — for the first year, said Tim Gibbs, CEO of Greater Grays Harbor Inc., who praised the work of Kilmer to convince the college to keep the center open.
“That was some heavy lifting and some good work,” said Gibbs, who met with Kilmer alongside GHC President Ed Brewster to discuss the center which is housed at Grays Harbor College.
Erik Stewart, the adviser for the Grays Harbor center, said he was originally told — and had not heard otherwise as of Friday — that the center would be closing in January and there would not be another position for him.
“I would be washing dishes or something,” he said of where the plan would have left him personally. He said he keeps very busy with his position, doing the majority of his work throughout Grays Harbor but also assisting in Pacific and Mason counties.
“There are 20 people stretched around the state, that’s not enough,” he said.
The program currently has 24 locations throughout the state and 29 advisers — with up to four in Spokane and three in Bellingham — according to their website. He said that while assisting with business plans and sources of financing are what the centers are known for, they do many more things — and that it would be of benefit to the community to take advantage of them to an even greater extent.
“Just how to run the business, that would be the best way to help, in terms of the bottom line,” he said. “As well as marketing and sales within the business plan. That is an entity by itself, the marketing plan.”
Stewart said he has developed close relationships with many business owners on the Harbor who have received his help, and that they continue to enlist his help on a regular basis.
“I have clients I’ve had for five or six years, who continue to grow and develop,” he said. “They use me as a sounding board, not just in an intensive way, but in a long range way as well.”
Kilmer said he saw an example of the effectiveness the morning of the meeting with WSU to ensure the center stayed open. He said he was at Newrizons Credit Union in Hoquiam when some employees happened to praise the Small Business Development Center, saying if they have individuals who need a plan and are hoping to start a new business that they refer them to it. “It was completely unsolicited,” he said. “I said, ‘Gasp, I’m going to a meeting later today to try to keep it open.’ ”
WSU will continue to fund the centers through the year and plan to work out a plan for future funding, according to Webb.