Fire memory fades, but help still available

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If your business phone rings and it’s Ingrid Wood from the Small Business Development Center, take the call.

She’s not selling anything. She won’t try to fast-talk a small-business owner into something he or she doesn’t need.

She wants to help.

Wood knows it’s been nine months since the Waldo Canyon fire shut down businesses for a week and crippled the region’s summer tourism season. And she’s wondering if small-business owners could now use some help with recovery.

The SBDC has been helping with free business assessment, finance guidance, accounting and marketing. Staffers have been on the phones, on computers sending out email blasts and going door-to-door.

This month, local business leaders, including nine bankers, rolled out the Pikes Peak Region Business Recovery Fund — which is offering loans up to $10,000 to small businesses affected by last summer’s fire.

Wood and others from SBDC, which is part of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, are calling local business owners with the details. So far, they have called 1,600 small businesses and about 200 of them are getting help — either financial or consulting assistance.

“We won’t tell someone to get a loan if it doesn’t make sense,” said Aikta Marcoulier, SBDC director.

Keeping the doors open, shutting the business down, taking out a loan or hanging on until next season are the questions small-business owners must ask themselves, Marcoulier said. And it’s not easy.

“Business owners are proud,” she said. “And they don’t want another loan.”

After the fire, SBDC officials estimated there were 8,000 businesses evacuated or directly affected by the fire, which began June 23 — the start of tourism season in the Pikes Peak region.

Many small businesses make the majority of their annual revenue in the 80 days of summer tourism season. As of September, the SBDC estimated an $8.6 million economic loss.

Some owners dug into their own savings to get them through the rest of 2012. Others turned to friends and relatives for cash to help pay the bills.

“A lot of people are waiting to see if they are going to make some money back,” Marcoulier said. “Most people are not going to know if they make money back until after the summer cycle.”

The Small Business Administration, after declaring El Paso and Teller counties a disaster area, has been offering loans to business owners for up $2 million for economic injury. Federal disaster loans are fixed at 4 percent interest rate and could be repaid over 30 years. SBA approved seven economic injury loans in El Paso and Larimer counties. The deadline for that loan program is May 7.

Meanwhile, Tammy Fields, Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance senior vice president of business development, worked with nine local banks, Pikes Peak United Way and one private donor to set up the Business Recovery Fund.

The loan amount is up to $10,000 at zero interest for 12 months, and then 12 percent thereafter. There is no loan fee and the terms are 36 to 48 months, with $50 per month paid by the borrower toward the principal in the first 12 months. The loan would be executed through the Colorado Enterprise Fund, which specializes in micro-loans for small businesses.

To be eligible, businesses must exist in El Paso or Teller counties and must demonstrate 10 percent or more reduction in sales in 2012 over the same period in 2011.

“Tammy (Fields) was able to get all the banks to donate money . . . enough money to be able to underwrite interest rates for the loans,” Marcoulier said. “This is a really good option to have now.”

In June — one year after the fire — SBDC will celebrate “Small Business Week” with four days of events on topics including networking, media and marketing, growing smart and social enterprise. The fire will be in the past and they won’t dwell on it, Marcoulier said. But the topics revolve around preparedness.

“Physical fitness is our theme,” Marcoulier said. “We want to help you manage and organize what is in your business.”

In the meantime, Wood and others from SBDC will begin a second round of calls to business owners, telling them about the loans. But they also will offer free consulting services in all aspects of business from marketing to operations.

That’s why, Marcoulier said, there’s no harm in taking a call from Ingrid Wood.