Small businesses gear up for BRAC

The Baltimore Sun

As the county grapples with the traffic, housing and schooling challenges accompanying the expansion of Fort Meade, more than a dozen state and local organizations will meet this week in hopes of making sure that small businesses don't get left behind.

Thursday's summit, organized by the county's economic development agency, aims to improve opportunities for small and minority business owners around Fort Meade, which through the base realignment and closure process, also known as BRAC, will add 12,000 jobs by 2011.

"It's not just the bricks-and-mortar infrastructure we need to work on when it comes to the economy," County Executive John R. Leopold said. "It's also the human infrastructure, the well-trained work force that is needed in this county as a result of the BRAC explosion."

The summit, to be held from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at Annapolis High School, is expected to have representation from the state Department of Business and Economic Development, the Fort Meade Alliance, the Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corp., the University of Maryland University College, the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce and the Black Chamber of Commerce for Anne Arundel County.

Bob Burdon, president and chief executive of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, said the report and conversations generated by the summit should help small businesses at a time of transition.

"The families who will be moving here as a result of BRAC will need services and goods, and there's a lot of opportunities there," he said.

Burdon said BRAC will provide opportunities for small-business growth in high-tech fields such as software design, and security services and products.

"You can get four or five good software engineers and put them in a 1,800-square-foot office, and they can generate a lot of important work," he said.

"Small business can absolutely play a role here."

Statistics suggest that the county's economy heavily relies on small business. According to the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp., 98 percent of all businesses in Anne Arundel County qualify as small businesses, meaning they have fewer than 50 employees.

Carlene Cassidy, director of the Entrepreneurial Studies Institute at Anne Arundel Community College, said minority and female business owners have problems getting access to loans and other forms of financial aid.

"Sometimes, it's nothing more than they need to work on their businesses' plans," Cassidy said.

"If they can get access to the capital, they can grow their businesses and become successful."

Claire Louder, executive director of the West County Chamber of Commerce, said she hopes the summit will lead to a better understanding of what small businesses in the area need, whether job training or how to apply for financial assistance.

"Small business is really the engine of our economy, particularly for my chamber," she said.

"There are tremendous opportunities for small businesses, but we need to get more and more information out there to them where we can."

Robert L. Hannon, president of the Economic Development Corp., a quasi-government agency, said Leopold has made improving services for small and minority business owners a priority.

"We're not trying to generate a report that goes to some desk; we're working to improve our agencies," Hannon said. "We want to create a more efficient, productive environment, and eliminate duplications and gaps in services wherever we can."

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