Supporting small business
by The Press and Standard | June 28, 2019 5:00 am
Last Updated: June 26, 2019 at 3:00 pm
Colleton Museum, Farmers Market and Commercial Kitchen Director Matt Mardell spent the morning of June 18 watching and listening as the county complex became home to the Rural Strong Expo, a business gathering to increase awareness about the leading programs available through the Small Business Administration (SBA) and United States Department of Agriculture.
“I think the expo went very well,” Mardell said. “Early feedback from the exhibitors suggests they met with and gave out contacts to many people. The panel of several local business owners was also well received, and I heard several people comment on how much they learned from how other people are running their businesses here in Colleton.
“I also think it was equally important that people got to hear Ashley Bell, the SBA Region administrator, speak so powerfully to the cause of small businesses.”
Bell, appointed SBA Region Four director in February 2018, sought to put those gathered at the expo at ease by giving some of his personal history, back when he was starting his own business in his hometown of Gainesville, Ga.
He detailed the mistakes he made in developing his own business. His first mistake, he told the audience came before he even opened the doors. He found what he considered a prime location and contacted the building’s owner.
She offered him a price to lease the space, he accepted. Later she told him that her first offer was supposed to be the first step of a negotiation over the lease and she was surprised when he didn’t try and negotiate a better deal.
Bell said he came to realize that by taking the first amount offered translated into him paying close to 40 percent more then he could have been spending.
Every mistake in starting a new business, he told the audience, has a price tag.
Following his welcoming speech, Bell said it was his experience that led him to accept the White House appointment to the SBA regional directorship.
“I have been a small business owner since I was 23 years old; I know what it is like to try to start a business, not knowing how to start a business,” Bell said.
“What better place to work than the place where I can help folks not make the same mistakes I did. If I can help somebody make a dollar quicker, more efficiently than I did,” he said, “that is a great place to be in public service.”
Bell started his small business while attending law school — that experience also played a role in his decision to join the SBA. “Being a lawyer is very beneficial in the sense that I get a chance to really understand all the federal rules and regulations and help make them plain sense to folks so they don’t get overburdened by it and they think its too complicated. I can take all the litany of federal policies and say, look folks, here are some plain examples of how you can benefit from these programs.”
Bell said that the SBA and USDA’s Rural Strong initiative is designed to benefit small business in the rural areas.
“In urban areas, you are going to see a lot of foundations and non-profit money that will offer niche services,” he said. In rural areas, he said, those services might be found at chambers of commerce and certain economic development councils.
“In rural areas, we need to do a little bit better in bringing all the pieces of the puzzle to one place. That is why we are here today — we want to make sure they can come to a one-stop shop and get everything they need. That is why this is important.
“Today is when we start the conversation; show you everything you need and you sign up with who you want to talk to,” Bell said.
The conversation continues, he added, by small business operators working with representatives like those assigned to the SBA office in North Charleston. Representatives of the North Charleston office, he added, are in Walterboro two days a week.
Later in the program, South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers was the keynote speaker.
Weathers and the other speakers, Mardell said, stressed the importance of small business to the state’s economy.
“Overall I think the event was a huge success with around 125 people in attendance and a further 40 bankers attending a special roundtable lunch where the SBA and USDA were looking to spur more financial banking of rural small businesses,” Mardell said.
“With so much need in the rural areas of the United States, this joint initiative aims to highlight the resources available to new and existing small business owners that are there to help guide and grow their businesses,” said Mardell.
When the Atlanta regional offices of the SBA and USDA were looking for a Lowcountry location to host a Rural Strong Initiative session, the Colleton Museum and Farmers Market complex was a natural. The June 18 program was the second Rural Strong Expo held in South Carolina.
William Furman, SBA senior area manager for the South Carolina District, was assigned to organize Rural Strong Expo. “I have been working with William on and off for some time,” Mardell said.
“Furman formerly worked as the USDA representative in this area,” Mardell explained. He was involved in the development of the Colleton Museum and Farmers Market and Colleton Commercial Kitchen projects.
“I think with the Colleton Commercial Kitchen being a food business incubator, and our farmers market also being a type of business incubator as it were, it makes sense that we hosted this event,” Mardell said.
The relationship between Furman and the museum complex was not the only link. The Small Business Development Center, located at the South Carolina State University, also co-hosted the local event. “I have forged a strong relationship with them, inviting them to open a one-day-a-week business counseling office here in the building in 2015,” Mardell said. He now sits on the center’s advisory board.
“Over time, their reach has gone beyond the kitchen and farmers market, into the community, where they are advising several local businesses in the area on their business development,” he advised.
The SBA, USDA and SBDC often have business classes and seminars here, Mardell added, “so you could say this is just an expansion of their regular work here.”