City officials have taken over Baltimore's floundering Small Business Resource Center with plans to overhaul services and turn it into an independent nonprofit organization.
The center at 3 W. Baltimore St. opened in 1996 with much fanfare and hefty donations from some of the city's powerhouse companies, including then-NationsBank and Bell Atlantic.
But after seeing a record 6,117 clients that first year, the hoopla and success of the center started to wane.
Sponsors began pulling out. The U.S. Department of Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency was the first to go because of its own budgetary cutbacks. Bell Atlantic stopped its support after becoming Verizon Communications upon its takeover of Nynex.
The biggest blow came in late 2000 when NationsBank, shortly after merging with Bank of America, said it would reduce its annual contribution from $50,000 to $10,000. The bank was by far the center's largest sponsor.
The center's future was in limbo last year as an advisory committee, which included Bank of America officials, hammered out who would take it over and traffic dropped to 3,700 people - a low.
"The center had lost its focus," said Kevin Malachi, director of the city's commercial revitalization division.
City officials hired Paul Taylor, one of Baltimore's most seasoned development officials, to lead the overhaul of the center as its first executive director. He started his duties Feb. 1.
In his role as director of business development at the Baltimore Development Corp., Taylor helped expand and start companies, much as he'll aim to do in his new position.
"Paul helped businesses in similar ways at the BDC and seemed to have a passion for it," Mayor Martin O'Malley said. "He believes in the importance of helping small businesses and has the skills to do it."
Taylor, who will report to the city's commercial revitalization division, has already started making small changes.
This year, the city paid for $80,000 in renovations that included adding a conference room, private counseling room and new office space to the 8,000-square-foot building.
Computer equipment and software were updated, and the furniture was rearranged to make the center more inviting.
An office manager and receptionist are on staff. For now, the city is funding about 80 percent of the center's $200,000 budget.
Taylor wants to have lenders housed in the center in addition to the business counselors - from the Maryland Small Business Development Network and Service Corps of Retired Executives - who are already there. A bonding company will move into the center later this month.
Bank of America officials said they will have finance officers work with clients at the center periodically and its foundation will continue to donate money to the center.
The bank reduced its role at all six of the small business resource centers around the nation, but company officials say they remain supportive of the program.
"As with many of our activities, at some point we have to say we've done our part and it's time for others to step up," said Brian Tracey, Bank of America mid-Atlantic market executive for community development banking.
Perhaps the biggest change the center will make is how it raises money. Taylor and other city officials are converting the center to a nonprofit.
They hope that will expand fund-raising options and provide the incentive of tax write-offs to companies making contributions.
"We'll have more flexibility in raising money than we would as a city agency," Taylor said.
Those affiliated with the resource center say it's the most comprehensive plan devised since its inception.
"I expect that it will be a lot more vibrant over there now that there's a full-time executive to focus on the center," said Oliver J. Phillips, director of business development for the Small Business Administration.
City officials said that it was important to keep the center alive because small businesses are vital to the economy and often get lost in the shuffle of big business.
There are about 141,930 small businesses in Maryland, representing about 98 percent of all private businesses in the state. They employ 1 million people and generate $9 billion in payroll.
"They may not make the splashy headlines that big businesses do, but when you add it all up, small businesses have a bigger impact on the job market," O'Malley said.
The resource center provides budding entrepreneurs with guidance on how to start their own businesses. They can get free advice on how to obtain financing, write a business plan and hire the most effective employees. Internet access and a full library are also available.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Lisa Sample of Owings Mills browsed the Internet while at the center. The 43-year-old mother of four teen-agers is starting a home-based public accounting business, Assets Accounting Service. A certified public accountant, she comes to the center about once a week.
"This is a great resource for people like me trying to start their own business," Sample said. "If I had to go and buy some of the books they have here, it would cost me $100 apiece, and I couldn't afford that."
That same afternoon, Willie Arrington was researching information on property taxes. He and three brothers are planning to open a home and building renovation business in the Harwood neighborhood of Baltimore.
He comes to the center about once a week as part of a class the city sponsors to teach public housing residents how to start their own businesses.
"A lot of the information I can't find anywhere else is right here," he said.
City officials hope to attract more people like Arrington.
Taylor also wants the center to be more accountable for results. In the past, the center tracked who came in the door but not how many businesses were created as a result of help the clients received.