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Frustrations await York Co. businesses that seek help

It takes some listening, but you can usually find a nugget of advice in the folksy ramblings of York County Councilman Curwood Chappell.

The most recent nugget - found amid some side-splitting laughter caused by Chappell - was his request for a "local economical development board."

Speaking at last week's State of the County breakfast, Chappell said York County needs to "find its own gold mines" and do everything it can to recruit small businesses and help existing small businesses.

The 83-year-old Chappell, serving his 10th term on the board, said we should give incentives to small businesses to help them locate in York County.

Unsaid at the meeting is the variety of assistance already being offered in York County to local small businesses. The problem is there's no one-stop place to go to get help.

For any business, but especially small businesses where time and money are often in short supply - making multiple calls on the hope something will happen is, at the least, frustrating.

Economic developers in York County and Rock Hill, plus representatives from Winthrop's Small Business Development Center, York Technical College, the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Catawba Regional Council of Governments, have been talking about ways to make things simpler.

They are not sure what the solution is yet, but most are convinced that another layer of government is not the solution. They see small-biz efforts as a complement to the traditional economic recruitment efforts where states and counties compete for medium to large companies, their large investments and payrolls.

(At the breakfast, Chappell questioned that approach, noting such recruiting was "stretching over a $5 bill to pick up a nickel.")

The group is interviewing several local small businesses to determine what's helped or hindered them. They are also talking about forming a local chapter of SCORE - the Service Corp of Retired Executives.

SCORE offers free mentoring to businesses. The premise is these executives know the challenges small businessmen are facing, and have made those difficult decisions in the past.

The group is taking a methodical approach to the problem. That's understandable. Government and education are big on dotting all the "i's" and crossing all the "t's."

But you don't have to spend too much time to know that small businesses' biggest challenges are staffing, navigating the rules and, most importantly, having access to loans to start or expand their business.

Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, said cutting taxes and regulations go only so far. He said South Carolina has been doing that for years and there's not much more to change or cut.

He would like to see more promotion of entrepreneurship from the state's Department of Commerce on down. He's high on the state's Small Business Development Centers such as the one at Winthrop.

But he notes Gov. Nikki Haley and her predecessor, Mark Stanford, both tried to eliminate the program.

The missing component, Knapp said, is access to loans in the $8,000 to $10,000 range. On average, he said, most small business are started with about $8,000 in capital.

Knapp said micro-lending pools, financed banks and other nontraditional sources are needed.

Randy Imler, executive director of the Catawba Regional Council of Governments, said his organization had a micro-lending pool in the 1990s. It was discontinued because of the loans that were not repaid.

Charging off those loans made it difficult to sustain the program, he said.

Knapp said what's being done in York County will be watched by others.

The county's problems are not unique, and solutions could be easily replicated elsewhere.

At the core of any solution, Knapp said, is a mindset. "The solution is not getting rid of regulations," he said. "but finding solutions to problems."

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