Listening tour’ helps officials take the pulse of Pawtucket’s business community

Article By DONNA KENNY KIRWAN, Photo by Butch Adams, from the Pawtucket Times

Saturday, 16 May 2009

PAWTUCKET — There’s a lot to be said for getting out of the office and talking to those in the trenches. That’s just what some of the state’s business leaders did on Friday morning in Pawtucket.

In what was billed as a “listening tour,” Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis, Mark Hayward of the U.S. Small Business Administration and John Cronin of the Rhode Island Small Business Development Center at Johnson & Wales University visited six local ventures. The group started at Embolden Design, a Web-design, development and consulting firm located at 545 Pawtucket Ave., and then headed to Medical Knitted Structures at 358 Lowden St., a manufacturer of tubular bandages and prostheses.

Later that morning, the business leaders toured four small companies located in Hope Artiste Village at 999 to 1005 Main Street. Their stops included RhodeOne Technology Solutions, which does e-mail marketing; Charlie’s Playhouse, a maker of children’s educational products; Ahlers Design, a jewelry and custom giftware designer; and the Rosinha Restaurant, which offers Cape Verdean and Portuguese cuisine.

Mollis said that since taking office, he has made economic development, especially for small businesses, a top priority. “I’m convinced that small businesses are the backbone of our economy. I want to let them know that they have an understanding ear in our office,” he stated. Mollis said he has conducted similar tours in Providence and South County, but this is the first such walkabout held in Pawtucket. He said the purpose of the tours are two-fold: to provide information on what resources are available for small businesses and to listen to their personal experiences and concerns in order to see what the state can do to be more encouraging.

Of particular interest to Mollis is the history behind the businesses and the individual reasons why the owners chose to locate in Rhode Island and why they stay. He noted the number of well-respected educational institutions located in the state, and said he wants to find ways to stem the tide of graduates who leave in order to find jobs. “Our goal is to be a lot more pro-active to small businesses,” he added.

Hayward, who heads up the U.S. Small Business Administration Center, holds weekly meetings with Mollis’ office to discuss the local economic climate. He said there has been an effort on the part of Mollis’ staff to forge a strong relationship between the two offices. For example, when a new business registers with the Secretary of State’s office, they are given information about the SBA and what kinds of financial assistance and loan programs are available. “We need to be able to support out home-grown businesses,” he stated.

Hayward also noted the SBA’s partnership with Johnson & Wales University, which is in its third year of sponsoring the Small Business Development Center (SBDC). The SBDC provides technical assistance through the college in a variety of ways, he said. The federal SBA gives a $611,000 grant to the SBDC, of which matching grant money must be provided. He said that Johnson & Wales provides about $500,000 of the funding, while the state provides $60,000. Hayward and Mollis both think that the state should provide far more financial support for the endeavor. Hayward maintained Rhode Island “provides the lowest contribution to the SBA of any state in the country.” John Cronin, state director of the Small Business Development Center, spoke of the many ways that the SBDC can help businesses, from developing marketing plans and strategies to providing student interns.

For the business owners themselves, most seemed appreciative of the visit by the business leaders. Rick Norberg, president of RhodeOne Technology Solutions, and Neil Anderson, vice president, said they have been working with the SBA “since day one” and also utilized and the services of Johnson & Wales University’s SBDC. As a provider of business-class e-mail services, and the only Microsoft hosting partner in southern New England, they told the group they are staying afloat in the current tough economy. “People are always looking at more efficient ways to use technology,” noted Norberg, who noted that there is also a constant need for problem-solving and repair to technology systems. He said, however, that the company has had to be more aggressive and do more networking in the current market, Gail Ahlers, of Ahlers Design, said that while she only employs about a half-dozen people at her Pawtucket studio, she utilizes many local subcontractors for everything from pouring metal and hand-coloring her custom jewelry items to making boxes.

Ahlers told the group that while she is not originally from Rhode Island, she decided to stay here after graduation, and has since been actively involved with the RISD Alumni organization as well as other local business groups. She agreed that it would be beneficial for the state to do more to encourage graduates and entrepreneurs to stay, and cited the number of creative and successful small business owners in the Pawtucket area alone. Marc Ardizzone, vice president of design and development for Embolden Design, said that owner Ann-Marie Harrington and the rest of the staff were “very appreciative” of the visit. “It’s nice to see that they are interested in seeing how small businesses are operating,” said Ardizzone. Ardizzone said that the 10-year-old company, which was given an award from the SBA recently, employees about 18 people and has successfully utilized marketing interns from Johnson & Wales University’s SBDC program in the past.

Ardizzone said he shares the concerns of Mollis and many others about trying to stop “the brain drain” from the state. Rhode Island in general, he said, seems to be having a hard time in maintaining employees and keeping jobs intact. He said the state needs to do more to encourage economic development, such as offering tax incentives and training.

Adriana Dawson, regional director for the SBDC, also noted that the organization had provided assistance to the owner of Rosinha Restaurant in developing a marketing plan and in going through the regulatory process with the city.

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