Prospective businesses have a friend

March 23, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Howard County will open a long-awaited, one-stop shop in Columbia today for those who want help starting or revitalizing a business.

Officially known as the Business Resource Center, the office will provide business counseling, legal advice, accounting expertise, computer access and conference space to anyone who wants it. And it will do so free -- at least for now.

Staff members will give tours of the center in the county office building on Gateway Drive from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and start signing up people to receive services.

"We're on-line, and I'm elated!" said Garfield Eugene Hubbard, a local businessman who helped make the center a reality. "This puts us heads and shoulders above most counties" competing for economic development.

The six-room center is an arm of the Economic Development Authority, a quasi-governmental agency. It was conceived two years ago by the county's Equal Business Opportunity Committee to help minorities, women, and people with disabilities wanting to start businesses in the county.

Although that will remain a special emphasis at the center, the idea was quickly expanded to help business as a whole.

"People are going to find that it's easier for business to get started in Howard County now," said Earl Saunders, chairman of the equal opportunity committee. "They're going to have some place to go to get their questions answered."

The center also will draw businesses to Howard County, Mr. Saunders said. "It shows the county is interested in business development and has its arms open to welcome anyone who wants to come."

Small businesses, in particular, are expected to benefit. In its first year, the center is expected to serve more than 500 small businesses -- about 10 percent of the county's small business total, said Richard W. Story, executive director of the development authority.

The center will be managed by Mary-Kathryn Boler, who works for the development authority. In addition to serving as center manager, she intends to supplement the counseling offered by three other consultants.

Joining Ms. Boler at the center as part-time counselors are Ellin Dize, county consultant for the Small Business Development Center; Maurice Kogon, director of the International Trade Assistance Center at Howard Community College; and Cynthia R. Nelson, regional operations manager of the Suburban Maryland High Technology Council.

Among her duties, Ms. Boler will help put together loan packages for small business entrepreneurs.

The center also boasts a volunteer staff of accountants, graphic artists, lawyers and other experts who have agreed to provide two free hours of professional service each to five or six different companies each month.

Ms. Boler said she and other center staff members plan to ensure that people seeking free professional advice have very specific questions they want addressed. If companies or entrepreneurs want more than two hours of individual professional service, they will be required to pay for it.

The center will offer free use of a fax machine and computers with access to the Internet, a worldwide computer data base. Each computer will be equipped with word-processing and spread-sheet programs.

And the center also will provide a library of reference materials and a room where people may read or do research. A conference room may prove especially useful to small entrepreneurs, Ms. Boler said. Everything at the center has been donated, and most of the services will remain free, Ms. Boler said, but ultimately, there will be a fee for some services.

"We may pass on some of the costs of accessing some data bases" through the computers, she said, because the searches "can be very costly."

Economic development officials hope the center will help new businesses survive the tricky period they face after they start up.

"Eighty percent of businesses fail in the first year, and we think we can significantly impact that statistic," said Mr. Story, the development authority director.

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