Alexandria was the only inside-the-Beltway stop on U.S. Senator George Allen’s listening tour of the Commonwealth. Allen met with close to 50 small business owners at the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce Monday morning. The gathering was informal and the topics wide-ranging, during his hour-plus question and answer period.
Mayor William D. Euille asked about the blackout of 2003, seeking answers to what Congress was going to do to ensure that the power outages that occurred all over the east coast didn't happen again.
Allen said that finger pointing certainly wasn’t going to help. “Everybody started pointing fingers at everybody else but I don’t think it is very helpful to have Democrats blaming Republicans and Republicans blaming Democrats,” he said. “We have an energy bill before Congress and there are a lot of issues that need to be resolved.”
One of those issues is how to, and who should, regulate the sharing of power. “The term is wheeling,” Allen said. “That’s not a term that you will see a lot in the media, but that is what it is called when one area of the country shares power with another when the first area can’t produce enough of its own power.”
Allen hopes that Virginia would be part of a southeastern grid as opposed to part of a mid-Atlantic or northeastern grid. “To use an old Tijuana phrase, our power is practically free,” he said. “It is certainly much cheaper than the cost of power in the northeast. I would like for Virginia to be part of a southeastern network so that we can keep our energy costs low.”
THE PROBLEM with that is the need to develop cleaner coal-burning technology. “About the only power plants that are being permitted now are those that use natural gas,” Allen said. “Natural gas is very costly. It’s kind of like using bottled water to wash your dishes — it’s not very cost-efficient.
“I support drilling in Alaska because I believe that it can be done in an environmentally responsible way, but I don’t think my side has the votes in the Senate to make that happen,” he said.
His analysis, however, was that something will be done. “This was certainly a wake-up call and I believe that you will see Congress take some kind of action,” Allen said.
John Redmon, the chairman of the Chamber Board of Directors, asked about relief for small businesses in terms of new Internal Revenue Service laws or regulations. “We used to be able to pay our payroll taxes by check a month after the payroll,” Redmon said. “Now, we have to submit the payments electronically three days after the payroll. If we are late or if we do not submit them electronically, there are substantial penalties. This is a real hardship for small businesses."
Allen was not aware of the change, but said, “I understand the issue,” he said. “I was a lawyer, but essentially, I was a small business owner. I had to decide on who to hire, what typewriter to buy and had to collect payments. I was not aware of this change but I will certainly check into it. I’m not promising that I can do anything, but I will look into the matter.”
ALLEN EXPRESSED continued concern about the lack of general aviation at National Airport. “It is the Secret Service’s job to be paranoid,” he said. “But I believe we have the technology and security procedures in place to allow some general aviation to return to the airport. I understand that the concern is that a plane could fly into the Capitol Building or the White House and there would only be a matter of minutes to make the decision whether to shoot it down or not if there was a problem. Still, this is hurting small businesses as did the closing of the airport.
“As some of you know, we fought very hard to get the airport reopened when the Secret Service really didn’t even want commercial service there. I argued that this was a federal taking and that businesses should be compensated for their losses. We made that argument successfully, but I am sure that some of the small businesses, especially those that serve general aviation, would prefer to see their businesses flourishing.”
ONE SMALL BUSINESS owner was concerned about the effect that the raising and lowering of the terror threat level has had on small businesses. “We, in Alexandria, rely heavily on tourism,” said Ann Dorman, head of First Night Alexandria. “I would hope that the government could give some thought to this before raising the terror threat level.”
While Allen expressed sympathy, he could not offer a solution. “What most people hear is that we are increasing the threat level because of “increased chatter. Increasing the threat level doesn’t mean that we want all activity to stop. It simply means that we want people to be more vigilant. There really isn’t any easy answer.”
SMALL BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT CENTER
U.S. Senator George Allen’s visit to Alexandria this week was sponsored by the Alexandria Small Business Development Center. The SBDC was started in December, 1996, as a program of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. While it is still housed at the Chamber offices, it is an independent tax-exempt organization with its own board of directors.
“We started the organization because small businesses in Alexandria were using the SBDC in Arlington, and we believed that there was a need to have our own organization,” said Bill Reagan, the director of the SBDC.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the Pentagon, the role of the SBDC has increased dramatically.
“We are very proud of the work that the SBDC does,” said John Redmon, the chairman of the Chamber board. “We had a 50 percent approval rating for applications that we helped to submit to the Small Business Administration for Economic Injury Disaster Loans and about 40 percent of all of the grants that were approved were approved for Alexandria businesses.”
The Economic Injury Disaster loans were made available to businesses that were directly effected by the terrorist attacks. “They were available throughout the country but the deadlines were longer for businesses in New York and the area near the pentagon,” Reagan said. “We contacted 8,000 business contacts and sent out 237 applications. We ultimately helped with 129 that got submitted and, of those, 63 were approved.”
Businesses were eligible for up to $1.5 million in loans, at four percent interest for 30 years, with payments and interest deferred for two years. “It is surprising how hard it was to convince businesses to apply for this money,” Reagan said. “Many small businesses are just used to riding things out and hoping that it will get better.”
On a day-to-day basis, the SBDC responds to inquiries and helps small businesses with a variety of problems. “We don’t do a lot of seminars,” Reagan said. “We think it is better to work with businesses on a one-to-one basis.”
The SBDC has about 300 clients who have filled out applications and are in contact with staff on an ongoing basis. In addition, the staff answers questions from hundreds of other small businesses each year. There are two fulltime and two part-time employees and funding is always an issue.
“Because we understand the need for funding and because of the importance of the work that the SBDC does, Virginia Commerce Bank made a three-year commitment to provide $25,000 each year,” said former mayor Kerry J. Donley, a vice president with Virginia Commerce. “In addition, we are offering a challenge grant of $25,000 to get other businesses to provide some support to the SBDC and to leverage even more money.”
Reagan is pleased with the challenge grant. “Like everyone else, we need funds to continue to do our work,” he said. “Virginia Commerce is already one of our funding partners and we are thrilled that they have come forward with this challenge grant. We only hope that someone will come forward and accept the challenge.”