Business development center in Mendocino County becomes a lifeline for small businesses during the pandemic
For years, entrepreneurs in Mendocino County have thought of the West Business Development Center as a cheerleader for best practices in a rural community full of smart and savvy businesspeople.
Now, in the face of a global pandemic, the “West Center” has become a lifeline.
Business owners have turned to the WBDC for guidance with everything from payroll to operational protocols. Entrepreneurs have come seeking information about how to get a piece of the $2 trillion stimulus package under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Still others have swung by looking for cold, hard cash infusions.
The spike in interest is notable. Executive Director Mary Anne Petrillo said the WBDC has seen an 80% increase in new clients this year. What’s more, the organization saw a huge jump in the number of existing clients attending training sessions in March and April — 369 this year, up from 82 last year.
“A lot of these business owners simply don’t know where else to turn,” Petrillo said. “We’re just happy we can be there for them and offer them some pointers and peace of mind.”
Three forms of help
Technically, the WBDC is a U.S. Small Business Administration-funded nonprofit business development center that provides reliable no-cost confidential counseling and relevant training programs to entrepreneurs throughout Mendocino and Lake counties.
West Center hosts the Mendocino Small Business Development Center and the Mendocino Women’s Business Center. (It grew out of an organization dedicated to helping female entrepreneurs.)
The parent organization has been around for more than 30 years.
For the purposes of post-pandemic programming, all programs fall under the banner of WBDC. And since the pandemic started in mid-March, the West Center has offered help in three different flavors.
First have been confidential one-on-one coaching and counseling sessions that allow individual business owners to sit down (via Zoom or telephone) with advisers and ask questions the entrepreneurs might be afraid to ask in a more public forum. There are three staff members and 14 consulting advisers in all.
Second have been training services — webinars and seminars to help small businesses navigate the application processes for federal funds. The WBDC set up training programs specifically around obtaining Economic Injury Disaster Loan emergency funds from the SBA, and funds from the Paycheck Protection Program that is part of the CARES Act.
Finally, the WBDC also has dabbled in different forms of light economic development — planning, assessment, and small grant sums in particular.
“It’s a cycle — if small businesses go down, there’s no sales tax, and if sales tax drops, it shrinks the general fund,” Petrillo said in an interview. “We’re sitting at the table with others trying to figure out how to help our very rural county do the right thing.”
Of the three forms of assistance, the seminars have been by far the most popular, with each drawing dozens of audience members. Petrillo and her team recruit other local business owners to run the events so clients are hearing from their peers. The result: open, honest conversations.
One of these seminars helped Kapila Phoenix and his Italian restaurant, La Siciliana, in Willits.
When the pandemic first hit, Phoenix kept his business open but suffered a 30% loss in revenue. He cut his staff in half. Then he signed up for a WBDC webinar about how to apply for the SBA disaster loan program. After following some of the advice from the webinar, he completed the application process and received an initial $10,000 loan.