Economic conditions have improved substantially since the start of the pandemic nearly two years ago, especially in Arizona, which is benefitting from strong job growth, robust retail sales, rising in-migration and other favorable trends.
Yet many of the state’s roughly 611,000 small businesses are still struggling, which is why the federal government has launched a new outreach program to help company owners and entrepreneurs find the help they need and make valuable connections.
The new Community Navigator program from the U.S. Small Business Administration is open to any small businesses but with a focus on those operating in rural areas or run by women, veterans or members of racial or ethnic minorities, some of whom aren’t proficient in English. It was established by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
“If you’re a big business, you’ve had the resources to figure this out,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, referring to the Paycheck Protection Program and other federal relief efforts during stops in Mesa and Phoenix Friday to tout the new program.
“But it was clear the relief wasn’t getting to so many of these (smaller) businesses, who often are the ones who need help the most.”
Kelly advocated last March for programs to increase awareness of and participation in SBA relief programs. He said he has heard from business owners in outlying areas complaining of having had trouble making contacts or completing SBA loan applications because their telephone calls would drop or their internet services would go down in the process.
The Community Navigator program is designed to help owners grapple with a range of challenges such as applying for financial aid and grants or getting help with contracts, marketing, business development or other operations. Even export help is available, though only about 1% of Arizona small businesses sell products outside the country.
Assistance will be coordinated through nonprofit groups with deep community connections including, in Arizona, the International Rescue Committee, National Urban League and Local Initiatives Support Corp.
SBA chief Isabella Casillas Guzman, who was with Kelly in Mesa and Phoenix on Friday, said the best bet for small business owners is to get the process started by visiting the agency’s website, sba.gov/navigators.
Mixed experiences with SBA
Angel Moreno, co-owner with his wife of eight Moreno’s Mexican Grills, said a PPP loan he secured last year was critical in helping meet payroll, pay other bills and keep the restaurants open and their nearly 200 workers employed.
Moreno, who hosted a visit by Kelly and Guzman, said he didn’t find the loan application process difficult.
But Jade Noble, co-owner of the Frances boutique and the Linger Longer Lounge, both in Phoenix, said she and her business partners had some trouble applying for SBA assistance that they used to acquire one of the businesses and keep both open. She also hosted a visit by Kelly and Guzman.
Guzman said the Community Navigator program was designed to counter a lack of awareness about the resources available through the agency and to help more owners navigate the system, especially those not proficient in English.
The program was unveiled last month on a pilot basis and will continue through November 2023 at a cost to the government of around $100 million over that span, she said.
Scope of Arizona’s small businesses
Kelly described small businesses as the backbone of Arizona’s economy. In Arizona, 611,000 such entities employed 42.9% of the state’s private workforce, according to statistics from the SBA and Census Bureau. Nationally, 32.5 million small businesses employed 46.8% of the nation’s private workforce.
Many of Arizona’s small businesses are focused in professional/technical services, real estate including rentals/leasing or construction.
Among the Arizonans who own small businesses, 45% are women, 8% are Veterans, 19% are Latinos and nearly 11% are members of racial minority groups. Among Arizonans employed at these companies, nearly 47% are women, 6% are Veterans, 31% are Latinos and 19% are from minority groups.
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