The head of the Small Business Administration visited Philadelphia Monday and urged the Senate to pass a bill that would revive provisions that supercharged SBA lending between early 2009 and May.
"Now is not the time to pull back. Now is the time to make sure that healthy small businesses can get money," said SBA administrator Karen Mills, with the staccato sound of a cook chopping herbs for lunch at Center City restaurant Amis in the background.
Amis, at 13th and Waverly Streets, the third restaurant by Marc Vetri and partners, opened in January with the help of a $525,000 SBA-backed loan from Susquehanna Bank that covered most of the $700,000 cost.
Mills was banging the drum for the Obama administration, which has been arguing, against strong Republican resistance, for additional government spending to support the clearly weakening economic recovery.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided money that allowed the SBA to reduce fees to borrowers and to boost the loan guarantee for lenders to 90 percent from 75 percent for most loans. Average weekly loan volume soared 90 percent after those breaks went into effect, the SBA said.
The authorization for fee waivers, which saved Vetri some $14,000, is in place through September, but the 90-percent guarantee expired at the end of May.
That evidently made the program less attractive to banks. "In the last six weeks, we've had a 60 percent drop in our volume. That shows you the Recovery Act was working, but that we need to continue it," said Mills, citing Vetri's creation of 62 full-time jobs through the loan for Amis.
Economists say that at this stage during most economic recoveries, small business has led the job market. But this time, small businesses are not hiring as they have in the past. Mills blamed that on the tight loan market, but small-business surveys by the National Federation of Independent Business have found that slow demand for goods and services is more of a deterrent to hiring than difficulty in getting loans.
Vetri said the job market for restaurant workers was remarkably different in early 2007, when he opened Osteria on North Broad Street, from early 2010, when Amis debuted. His third place is the eponymous Vetri on Spruce Street.
"We had to really look for waiters and line cooks and everything like that [when opening Osteria]," Vetri said. "But when we stuck an ad out that we were going to open up this [Amis] restaurant, we had hundreds of line cooks and waiters. It was actually a little bit scary to see how many were looking for work out there."
The recession gave Vetri far more people to choose from when staffing Amis, but his renown as a chef has protected his restaurants from the worst ravages of the recession. He said it shows up in his customers' smaller tabs: "If they normally order two bottles of wine, they order one bottle of wine. If they normally have three courses, they are having two courses."
Mills, who originally was not planning to have any courses at Amis, changed her mind. "My staff has rebelled. They said they are not leaving unless they eat," she said to Vetri, adding that she personally would treat her staff.
SBA media contact Joe Zepecki reported later by e-mail that the group sampled many items, but that "gnocchi alla romana with oxtail ragu, turkey cutlet alla milanese, and tagliata di tonno (grilled tuna steak) with fennel salad and citrus wedges were the standouts."
The vast majority of businesses are eligible for financial assistance from the Small Business Administration. However, applicant businesses must:
Operate for profit.
Be engaged in, or propose to do business in, the United States or its possessions.
Have reasonable owner equity to invest.
Use alternative financial resources first, including personal assets.
Some businesses are ineligible for financial assistance.
Go to http://go.philly.com/sbaloan for more information on SBA loans.