Center wins praise from new business; Development program helps small companies get off the ground; 'They were wonderful'; County unit has aided at least 1,200 people since opening in 1988


At Alice's Country French Bakery, owner Jim Constantine is enjoying a rare quiet moment.

The shop on Westminster's Main Street is often buzzing with customers who start streaming through the door at 6 a.m. for coffee, pastries, bread and other goodies that Constantine's wife, Alice, -- he calls her the "pastry princess" -- churns out in the kitchen.

Business has been brisk since the couple opened the bakery in November, and Jim Constantine credits Maryland's Small Business Development Center for helping the enterprise get off the ground.

"They were wonderful," he says. "They walked us through everything, from fine-tuning our business plan to offering help with financing. Their advice was just invaluable. It made the opening so much smoother."

Sal Romeo, who owns Paradiso restaurant around the corner from Alice's, also benefited from the center's help. Romeo and his wife, June, opened Paradiso Pizza, a small restaurant off Main Street, in 1992. They didn't require start-up advice when they opened a much larger, more chichi Paradiso on Distillery Drive, across a parking lot from the other restaurant almost two years ago. Still, Sal Romeo says the SBDC was instrumental in helping the couple assemble the paperwork required to secure a state loan for their new venture.

"They were very helpful," Romeo says. "They did their best to speed up the process."

Would-be business owners can learn more about the center at open houses today from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the center's offices throughout the state. The Carroll County office, which opened in 1988, three years after the Small Business Development Center was established in Maryland, is at 225 N. Center St. in Westminster.

Carroll's business counselor and sole employee, Michael Fish, estimates the county center has assisted at least 1,200 people since it opened. In a typical year, Fish says, the office helps secure more than $3.3 million in small-business loans.

The beneficiaries of Fish's assistance range from sign companies and vending machine businesses to an Avon sales representative and a veterinarian. Diverse as his clients are, Fish says they frequently have two things in common -- technical knowledge and a lack of business acumen.

"Small businesses create most of the jobs, but the majority don't make it," he says. "The reason they don't make it, in my opinion, is lack of business skills.

"It doesn't take Einstein to make a pizza," Fish says. "Making the pizza is the easy part of the job. The most difficult part is actually running the business."

That's where Fish comes in, providing training and advice on staffing, marketing, financing and other aspects of business ownership. Numerous businesses along Westminster's Main Street strip, held up as a shining example of what a historic downtown can be, have taken advantage of services offered by the center.

Fish says that as fast-food restaurants and chain stores sprang up along Route 140 in the past decade, Main Street struggled to find its niche. That effort has been successful, he says.

"It's really come around tremendously," Fish says. "It's attractive, it's friendly to shoppers."

R. Douglas Mathias is the executive director of the Greater Westminster Development Corp., a nonprofit organization working with the city on economic development. While the city offers many of the same services to business owners as the SBDC, Mathias sees no conflict.

"It's another resource, and I think it's important that the public have several places to get information," Mathias says.

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