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Businesses have changed since storm, as have those who help them

For many businesses in South Mississippi, things are different in these post-Katrina days. The way Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) and workforce development centers operate has changed, too.

The director of the Gulf Coast Small Business Development Center, Teresa Speir, says the clientele has changed. “We’re seeing a lot more people for start-up businesses than before,” she said. “I think that’s for a variety of reasons.”
In some cases, businesses blew away and employees want to begin their own companies. Or, maybe their skills are more needed now with the rebuilding effort.

“Or, some people have stopped and thought about what they really want to do with their lives,” Speir said. “They’re thinking ‘if not now, when? Or maybe never.’ It’s causing us to look at things in a different light.”

Speir is also seeing a lot of business people from out of town who need information pertaining to licenses and locating city halls that were in some instances blown away. The majority of these businesses are for debris removal, construction and water resources.

“We’re starting a strong emphasis to let people know of existing help with their businesses. That’s 60% of our work,” she said. “Some business owners want to revamp. They want to know how they can change now and go forward in rebuilding. A lot of people have left the Coast and there are different needs and a different market.”

The Gulf Coast SBDC has begun some new workshops since the storm. They are offering Marketing Post Katrina, Business Basics for the Construction Trade and the Business of Art. Speir said many one-on-one consultations for construction clients led to the construction workshops. Several have been held in different locations and another is planned for Lucedale.

The center’s office on the Long Beach campus of the University of Southern Mississippi was destroyed. The University of Mississippi is now the host institution for the Gulf Coast SBDC. With help from out-of-state volunteers, a business assistance center was opened in each of the coastal counties in less than a month after the hurricane.

“Don Fisher at Ole Miss coordinated the volunteers from all over the country, and brought in trailers and food for them. They were here until the end of October,” Speir said. “We talked to almost 1,000 clients to help them get SBA loans.”

Speir, who’s motto could be “have box will travel,” says she’s met clients all over the Coast, even at a coffee shop, working out of a blue box and with a laptop computer. For the next six months, the center’s temporary office is at the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce facility. After that, she doesn’t know where they will be housed but she knows the work will continue.

“It’s a balancing issue for most business people now. The whole idea of having lost so much makes us approach business differently,” she said. “We are making time for family and personal life.”

Along the Coast, Speir says the two most important words for business are “Now Open.”

“A new business model has emerged,” she said. “So many places were destroyed. A lot of businesses are sharing space. We did not see that before. By doing this, they can cover for each other, it’s a better use of space, some businesses might not have enough inventory alone to fill up a space, and that way we’ve got two more businesses open.”

The SBDC at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville has assisted a lot of business owners with SBA loans, too. They also had out-of-state workers come in to help.

“We put in quite a few overtime hours after Katrina,” said director Greg Butler. “We had a lot who were successful in getting loans. We’ve also seen more people interested in starting their own businesses. My numbers have increased for training and inquiries.”

Butler says many questions are about the Gulf Opportunity Zone. He has worked with business owners on financing and on ways for existing businesses to expand, too. He is also stressing the need for business interruption insurance because many in the area did not have this coverage or did not have enough. “We have become better known in the area through the disaster, and got to know a lot more business owners,” he said. “We’re back to normal pretty much for those who were able to get up and going.”

Pearl River Community College’s Workforce Development Center in Hattiesburg has focused on construction training since the storm.

“We benefited from U.S. Department of Labor grants to conduct carpentry training,” said director Scott Alsobrooks. “We’re also doing something with building inspectors. We’ve set up classes to help them become certified and knowledgeable about new building codes. And we’re putting together welding classes and classes for heavy construction equipment operators. The demand is through the roof since Katrina.”

The workforce center also formed an unusual partnership to aid small businesses and entrepreneurs at Stennis Space Center who lost employees. The partnership of Pearl River Community College, the University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi State Extension Service, the Mississippi Department of Employment Security WIN center and Stennis held a four-week course for people with a computer background to help them get entry-level jobs in technology.

“These are partners who are usually competing but we came together to meet the needs of this industry,” Alsobrooks said. “We must look outside the existing paradigms to reach out to these kind of technology companies and make things work.”

He said Pearl River Community College was looking at coordinating this type of training before the storm but Katrina pushed them into it more quickly.

Because Pearl River Community College has been designated a center of reconstruction by state and federal authorities, an office was opened in Waveland to assist with rebuilding and training in devastated Hancock County.

Pearl River County has experienced tremendous growth since Katrina, which has caused a need for more healthcare workers. Alsobrooks said the training center is in the process of putting together programs to train paramedics to complement the emergency medical assistance training already in place.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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