Small business credit crunch eases

By Michelle Dunlop Herald Writer

Is this the time to start or expand a business?

If you ask Garlic Jim’s founder Dwayne Northrop, who hopes to nearly double his Everett-based pizza chain by year’s end, the answer is yes. Low rents and an abundance of used equipment mean it’s easier for people to get into the restaurant business like Garlic Jim’s.

“You can probably get a store open for about one-third of the cost” of pre-recession times, he said.

Still, opening a pizza shop through Northrop’s franchise will cost between $75,000 and $100,000. What if you don’t have that much? Or what if you need more money to expand your business?

After a 53 percent drop in Small Business Administration loans from 2006 to 2010, Snohomish County saw a resurgence in SBA loans in 2011. More than $82 million in loans was handed out in the county during the federal fiscal year, according to the SBA. That’s $18 million more than in 2006.

But that doesn’t exactly mean getting a loan to start a new business or even to expand an existing business in Snohomish County is easy.

“We’re starting to see lending increase again,” said Nancy Porzio, SBA director for the Seattle-Spokane district.

Still, the number of SBA loans handed out has fallen, even as the average dollar amount of those loans has increased. In fact, the average SBA loan in the county in 2011 was more than double the average loan in 2007.

It’s a trend the SBA has seen play out across the country, Porzio said. The reason behind it is less than clear.

Through the federal jobs act, the Small Business Administration was able to increase the maximum dollar amount on loans to $5 million. Also, Porzio noted, many companies are applying for SBA loans to export their products, a costly process to get going.

The number of businesses getting loans remains lower than before the recession.

“Businesses are cautious,” Porzio said.

Lyle Ryan, vice president for Everett-based Coastal Community Bank, agrees. Coastal provides both business loans through the SBA and privately. Businesses and people looking to start their own businesses still see consumers being cautious about spending.

A new survey published Tuesday said the number of small business owners who expect their sales to fall in coming months rose by 3 percent, to 28 percent of business owners surveyed. William Dunkelberg, the National Federation of Independent Business’ chief economist, said uncertainty over taxes, which is likely to continue until after the election, contributed to owners’ uneasiness.

For those willing to overcome that unease, Coastal’s Ryan said his bank, for one, is lending. Ryan has been in the local banking industry more than 30 years, working all but the last two with Frontier Bank, which was seized by federal regulators in 2010. California’s Union Bank bought Frontier’s assets.

Last year, Coastal provided $108.2 million in loans to small businesses in the county. Through the first seven months of 2012, the bank has lent $100.2 million, Ryan said.

“I’m pretty confident we’ll reach our goal of $180 million” in business loans, he said.

Business owners have been challenged in recent years to find a lender in the county, due in part to the loss of many of the county’s community banks. Larger national banks have bought up the assets of local banks that failed. Local businesses now have to deal with larger institutions that have a different financial model, Ryan said.

“There are few places willing to do business with you,” he said.

Many of those big banks just aren’t interested in lending to businesses with annual sales of less than $10 million, which is how Coastal defines a small business.

“Any start-up business has risks stacked against them,” Ryan said.

However, Ryan believes the region is on the cusp of a real economic recovery, pointing to the fact that Snohomish County has continued to add jobs — an indicator of good things to come.

Porzio is also optimistic about business lending.

“I think we’re going to see another increase in 2013,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.