Woodstock Businesses Hurt By Irene Look To SBA For Help

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(Host) In the six months since Tropical Storm Irene ripped through Vermont, many small businesses have cleaned up debris and reopened their doors.

But the economic damage is still being tallied-and repaired-by owners trying to get back on their feet.

Some have turned to the federal Small Business Administration for loans. But as VPR’s Charlotte Albright reports, many have been rejected.

(Albright) According to the recovery report issued by the state in January, the SBA has so far loaned about $12 million to small businesses physically damaged by Irene. But more than half of the disaster applications got rejected.

Darcy Carter, SBA’s district director in Vermont, admits the process can be daunting. And to make matters worse, just after Irene hit, federal assistance agencies got embroiled in congressional funding fights, creating an unusually high backlog of loans to process.

(Carter) "Because I have seen firsthand our Vermont businesses struggling with the extended time that it has taken for them to get an approval, to get things modified, to get a loan closed and to actually get it funded has been, in my opinion, way too long."

(Albright) Carter says local SBA outreach workers are helping applicants to apply, or to re-apply. And there are success stories.

Meet Charlie Shackleton.

"This is the main making room. . .six craftsmen."

(Albright) His elegant furniture and pottery store and workshops along the Ottaquechee River in Bridgewater were swamped by Irene.  He can still remember the day the flood insurance adjuster arrived.

(Shackleton) "And he said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ And I said, ‘Yep.’ And he said, ‘Well, none of it’s covered.’"

(Albright) That’s because most of the Shackleton’s most valuable equipment and supplies were kept in a basement, and his flood insurance did not cover damage created by water that entered below grade. So the company turned to the SBA for the $200,000 it needed to restart production and fix up the store.

(Shackleton) "For government people, they were amazing in understanding that this is basically your money and this is exactly what it’s here for, to help what is a very viable business get back on its feet again. And they would say that on the phone. I thought that was pretty phenomenal. You weren’t buried in some bureaucracy where nobody had a clue what was going on."

(Albright) But that feeling of being buried in bureaucracy is exactly what afflicted the owner of a popular specialty food and produce store called the Woodstock Farmers Market, a few miles up the road.

On this mild winter day, the place is hopping. But owner Patrick Crowl is still trying to figure out why his SBA application got rejected.

(Crowl) "Yeah, I mean why turn us down when if they had done their homework we are a really great investment."

(Albright) Company CEO Steve Moyer says the SBA application was confusing and unclear, and demanded documentation that was washed away by the flood. He’s going to reapply. He says the store would never have survived this long without immediate, user-friendly aid from VEDA-the Vermont Economic Development Authority-and from a pre-paid gift card program that let customers plow cash back into the business as soon as the doors re-opened. So cash registers are finally beginning to ring again.

(Moyer) "Yeah, we had a really great weekend. It’s been slow in January-January was off, but again there’s a lot of things we attribute that to. A little bit of  post-Irene malaise, you know, other peoples’ incomes have been affected in the area,  we are not the only people."

(Albright) And they are certainly not the only business people anxiously awaiting word from federal lenders.

In Vermont, SBA received the highest number of post-Irene business loan applications, 83, from Windsor County. Only 38 have been approved, and 25 have been funded.

That leaves about a dozen in the pipeline. The deadline for getting help to repair physical damage has passed, but applications for economic hardship following the storm will be accepted until June first.

For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright

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