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Watertown’s SBDC sees strong client numbers, increasing workshop attendance

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When Chuck and Lynette Fowler have ideas for their business, they weigh them with their adviser at the Small Business Development Center at Jefferson Community College, Watertown.

Mr. Fowler said Robin E. Stephenson, a business adviser at the center, helped the couple as they prepared more than a year ago to buy Chuck’s Market, 8212 Main St., Harrisville.

“I keep in touch with Robin quite a bit — it’s definitely a good program,” Mr. Fowler said. “They’ve helped me out a lot.”

This year, Ms. Stephenson helped them consider an energy efficiency program through National Grid. The program allowed the Fowlers to buy more efficient lights and make changes to cut down on refrigeration costs. National Grid audits energy use at businesses, covers 70 percent of the cost-saving measure and then puts the remaining cost on the business’s electricity bill for a year or two.

“It really brightened up the place,” Mr. Fowler said. “It made a huge difference.”

The center has helped more businesses evaluate the cost effectiveness of programs like National Grid’s as starting small businesses gets more difficult, director F. Eric Constance said.

“We had more and more counseling to help business owners get their costs in line and market their businesses better,” he said. “We’re doing little things, like partner with National Grid, and bring clients that need those changes into those programs that can help them finance the improvements.”

In the last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, staff at the center saw 798 clients, with 590 at JCC and 208 at the Oswego branch. The 798 figure is down just slightly from 808 clients in the 2009-10 fiscal year. The 2008-09 year had the highest number of clients, with 819.

While commercial lending is a tough environment, the center’s clients continue to receive bank backing. In 2010-11, center clients were awarded $15.4 million in commercial loans, up from $13.4 in 2009-10 and $12.4 million in 2008-09.

“Many people are disenchanted that they can’t find funding for their projects,” Mr. Constance said. “The people who would get loans before the recession, with the same credit and resources, are not getting funding now.”

He said the local commercial lending market has shrunk as HSBC Bank USA is selling its north country branches. Other banks, including KeyBank N.A., Watertown Savings Bank and Community Bank N.A. are using more government-guaranteed loans and being more selective in their clients.

“The sad part is that in this type of economy, startups are even more difficult to get money and most of the people we see are startups,” Mr. Constance said.

The center is part of a statewide and national network that helps small businesses find resources and research the local market to check the feasibility of the business venture. The local center has expanded its educational portion in the last year to include 38 workshops, which had 1,787 participants, up from 1,454 participants at 36 workshops the year before. The increase is partially attributable to the business certificate JCC is offering, as well as the Jefferson Express program, which sends computers and a lecturer to different locations in the county to give a wide range of training.

Finally, the number and percentage of military-related clients at the center has grown, so that Fort Drum soldiers and spouses make up 26 percent of the clients, up from 23 percent last year.

“That proportion is climbing because we’re doing more and more on post,” Mr. Constance said. “We want to do more spousal groups because it will help keep them in the area when the soldiers get deployed, even if their businesses need to be mobile things, such as e-commerce.”

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