Business development center in Mendocino County becomes a lifeline for small businesses during the pandemic

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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.”

Popular seminars

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.

“I am committed to keeping the restaurant open for many years to come,” Phoenix wrote in a recent email. He added that the SBA money put him in a position to fulfill this goal.

Other local business owners report similar results from attending WBDC seminars. Even among those business owners who were not lucky enough to receive assistance, just hearing from colleagues about their struggles helped put the hardship in perspective.

WBDC clients haven’t been the only ones to benefit from the seminars; speakers have grown as a result of the experience, too.

Just ask Jim Roberts, one of the local entrepreneurs to lead a West Center seminar. Roberts owns The Madrones and The Brambles, two hotel properties in Philo. In late March, he spoke on a webinar as part of a panel about his experiences applying for an SBA loan and getting his mortgage payments deferred. His thesis statement: Act swiftly and be prepared for anything.

“I started The Madrones after the 2008 housing crisis and learned a lot from that experience,” Roberts said. “When this went south, I realized we really needed to move quickly.”

Despite Roberts’ evasive actions, his businesses also have suffered as a result of the pandemic — bookings are down, and he has pushed back openings for a new restaurant and a new high-end cannabis dispensary. Still, he says, he’s been able to survive and advance.

“It’s all just about figuring out a way to navigate around (the current economic climate),” he said.

What’s next

As the pandemic continues into the summer, Petrillo expects to continue WBDC programming and assistance as best she can.

One of the big questions she hopes to address: How can small businesses in a rural county do lucrative business in the middle of a global pandemic?

Already some local companies are improvising on this point. At Harbor House Restaurant in Elk, for instance, Executive Chef Matthew Kammerer has gone out of his way to recast the restaurant’s $180 price-fixed dinner as a much more affordable and much less highfalutin experience overall.

The way Petrillo sees it, new programs might prompt organizations to shift their company business models and focus on something new, or to open a new line of business that is more conducive to a customer base that’s socially distant.

“It doesn’t matter how businesses look after this,” she said, “just that they’re here at all.”

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