I traveled to DC last week, between the earthquake and the hurricane, to participate in a day-long White House Citizen Leaders' Briefing. This was a chance to discuss what's working and what's not on a variety of policy areas. The morning was spent in breakout sessions, and after a tour of the East Wing of the White House, about 70 of us from a half dozen states met in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for a broader discussion with administration policy advisors.
Policy areas up for discussion were energy and the environment, civil rights, healthcare, education, and the one I chose, small business. This was a fascinating conversation with citizen leaders from Maine, Tennessee, Alabama and Maryland joined by administrators from the Small Business Administration.
You won't be surprised to know that there were a few messages consistently expressed by participants. Access to capital for small business owners is among the highest priority. We know banks are holding on to record amounts of cash, there is a strong pent up demand for loans; so why the disconnect?
We talked about the need to prepare small businesses to broaden their marketing to include exports; as 85% of the growth in global markets is occurring outside the US borders. The Maine International Trade Center (mitc.com) is an incredibly effective public/private partnership, and the SBA will be targeting funding to just this kind of state organization, knowing those closest to the businesses will be best able to offer relevant assistance. We expect an announcement soon to detail what MITC will receive and how it will be used to encourage Maine small businesses to explore or expand international markets.
I was able to raise an issue I had recently heard about through my conversations with Mainers, that the outreach offered to women and minority-owned businesses often does not work well in rural areas. This is due to the “rule of 2” which requires two comparable businesses to bid on a contract. Given our dispersed population, often there aren't two comparable women-owned or minority-owned businesses in a market region!
Finally, all recognized the need to increase small businesses contracting with the federal government. This too was a lively discussion.
For me, the high point of the afternoon was listening to Mark Doms, Chief Economist for the US Dept of Commerce outline the current global economy. It was fascinating to hear him tying together the economic plights of Greece, and now Italy and Spain to the shortage of capital here in the US. This is a major cause for bankers' hesitancy to make loans here in the US.
What do I take away from this trip? I reached out to other Mainers who I consider to be “citizen leaders” across the state, asking what they would bring to DC, given the same opportunity. I was able to share a lot of good, solid information with the administration. Investments in roads, bridges, and broadband are essential to longterm economic development while providing immediate employment, there are great workforce development initiatives here in Maine, the conservation of our environment is deeply rooted in our community development efforts, and while investing in sustainable energy we need to address Mainers' immediate home ownership and heating needs. The administration is willing and interested to hear how we are doing here in the trenches, and, even as there are complaints of the difficult process and unnecessary delays to engage with the feds, there is help available.