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Carroll programs aimed at attracting small business

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Lois Trout was just looking to pay her bills when she offered to sell homemade peanut butter eggs at the Carroll County Agriculture Center's Easter show in 2009.

She had recently lost her job and her husband was injured at work.

Four years later, Trout has turned that opportunity into the chance to sell more than 25,000 cupcakes at the Maryland State Fair in August.

With her business growing, Trout will open her own bakery along East Baltimore Street in Taneytown Thursday selling more than 40 different cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and muffins.

Trout is quick to attribute her success to faith and prayer, but said experiences from classes through the Carroll Business Path and a loan from the county's small business loan fund were "huge" in hiring the staff, purchasing the equipment, and preparing a business plan for the opening of Stone House Bakery.

"It has let us do things that we wouldn't have done ordinarily," she said standing inside her new 1,600 square foot storefront. "They've taken a dream and they've made it possible."

The Carroll Business Path, announced in January 2012 by the Board of Carroll County Commissioners and launched four months later, has since met with more than 250 prospective entrepreneurs like Trout exploring their chances of launching a start-up in Carroll County.

Businesses include cleaning services, information technology companies, hot dog carts, contracting services, and hair salons, among others, according to Jon Weetman, co-administrator of the Carroll County Department of Economic Development.

The goal of the program is to assist in opening 50 new small businesses each year.

After a "ramp up period" establishing the program, the county has assisted in opening five new businesses this month and three in May, Weetman said.

The goal moving forward is to continue having four or five new small businesses open each month, he said.

"What we're trying to do is the central function of all economic development and that is we're really trying to provide an enhancement to the taxable base," Weetman said. "We're looking to increase property taxes and income taxes, not by raising rates, but by having more business."

While the U.S. Small Business Administration defines a small business as a business with 500 or fewer employees, Carroll is targeting start up businesses.

If you adhere to the Small Business Administration definition, then 96 percent of the county's businesses are small businesses, Weetman said.

Getting business started

Often a prospective business owner is an expert in their field, Weetman said, but they lack the business experience, which is where the Carroll Business Path comes in.

The business path is a collaboration between Carroll Community College, the Department of Economic Development, Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, Carroll Technology Council, and the Maryland Small Business and Technology Development Center.

It is essentially a road map for prospective and existing business owners offering one-on-one guidance in developing a business plan, while also connecting people to classes, informational sessions, and services available for small businesses.

Trout said she took three to four classes through the program ranging in costs from $120 to $175 on topics such as social media, advertising, and developing a business plan.

"It just took me from a hobby into how to grow a business," she said.

In addition to the Carroll Business Path, Carroll introduced the Small Business Revolving Loan Fund in July.

The fund, comprised of $500,000 from the county and $500,000 from the state, was created to address the biggest need of new businesses, start-up funding.

Business owners have the opportunity to apply for a three-year loan up to $25,000 if they qualify. Requirements include that the business be located within the county with 25 full-time employees or less and the business owner must provide a letter of loan denial.

Weetman said the county is not intending to be competition for banks.

"We're looking for those (businesses) that just missed for some reason or another," he said.

At the end of the three-year loan, business owners are expected to apply for a line of credit with a bank, returning their business to the private sector and restoring the funding in Carroll's small business loan fund.

Carroll County has approved five loans since beginning to take applications in January.

Having a small business loan fund is not unique to Carroll.

According to Greg Cole, director of finance programs with the Maryland Department of Economic Development, there are 22 such loan funds throughout the state.

"That they (Carroll County) set up these funds clearly indicates that Carroll County is interested in stimulating small business," he said.

Cole said he has encountered programs similar to the Carroll Business Path in other counties, but couldn't say Carroll's program is unique because it's not something the state department of economic development is involved in.

Weetman said he has fielded calls from municipalities as far as Sonoma Valley, California, inquiring about the business path.

Carroll County Chamber of Commerce President Mike McMullin believes the business path has been working "really well" in its first year.

He has not seen another county with a similar, collaborative partnership.

"That in and of itself shows that everybody is working to try and help the small guy in this area," McMullin said.

With the ultimate goal of benefiting Carroll business owners, he said the program just needs more recognition before more businesses start opening their doors.

"It's only going to get better," McMullin said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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