SBA disaster loan process criticized
By SUSAN SMALLHEER
WILMINGTON — The owners of three Wilmington businesses heavily damaged by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 told U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. that the federal loan application process was cumbersome and downright difficult.
At a roundtable discussion Monday afternoon in the Wilmington Town Hall, Small Business Association officials from both Washington, D.C. and Vermont heard extensive complaints about the process, with all three business people saying they were discouraged by the process and weren’t sure they would do it again.
Of the three businesses, one received a loan, one was turned down, and one ultimately gave up.
The SBA granted 141 business loans after Irene, out of the 319 businesses that applied, for a total of $17.4 million. It also approved 408 loans totalling $17.7 million to homeowners, against 986 applications, according to Darcy Carter, Vermont state director for the SBA.
Jeanne Hulit, the former New England Region 1 administrator for the SBA at the time of Irene, who now works for the SBA in Washington, D.C., said that there was room for improvement in the SBA response, but she said the federal government could not be the first line of defense.
Hulit said the Vermont emergency response, including its loan program managed by the Vermont Economic Development Authority, was one of the best in the country, and was being copied by New York state.
“We are about long term recovery,” said Hulit.
Welch was in Wilmington and Waterbury earlier Monday as part of his ongoing Post-Irene Listening Tour. Wilmington officials said that Welch had been in Wilmington at least three times on the SBA loan issue.
Welch said that he was hoping the SBA would be quicker and more responsive to victims of disasters.
“Government has got to be efficient,” he said after the session. “But a loan delayed, is a loan denied.”
Steve Butler, owner of North Star Bowl of Wilmington, had a current SBA loan for his business, but he said he was turned down for a new loan — at a higher interest rate than his current loan — for his combination bowling alley and pizza shop.
Butler, who said he was a former banker in New York City before moving to Wilmington, said he understood why SBA turned him down for the second loan.
But Butler and Alice Richter, general manager of The Crafts Inn, and Meg Streeter, a Wilmington real estate agent, said the true need was immediate money to cover their business cash flow.
Richter, the general manager of the time-share resort, said Crafts Inn was devastated by the flooding, with the ground floor rooms, its pool and hot tub destroyed, as well as all the utilities serving the inn. Crafts Inn did receive a loan, but it came almost four months after Irene, and barely in time for key repairs before the all-important Christmas holiday, Richter said.
The VEDA loan came through in a day, Richter said.
“Foliage is big,” said Richter, “but ski season is bigger.” In all, the Crafts Inn needed $800,000 in repairs, and received a $515,000 low-interest loan.
Richter said she was dealing with an SBA official in San Antonio, and that she was hampered by the lack of phone service in Wilmington after the severe flooding, and the fact that the flood destroyed all of the inn’s paperwork.
Richter said that she had to Fed Ex documents to the board of directors of the Crafts Inn, since the SBA wouldn’t accept electronically signed documents.
Laura Sibilia, economic development director for the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., who at the time of Irene was executive director of the Mount Snow Area Chamber of Commerce, said that Wilmington’s ongoing recovery was “nothing short of a miracle.”
“Wilmington is working hard,” said Sibilia, who said damage totaled $10 million in Wilmington alone.
Wilmington still has a lot of empty store fronts, she said.