State budget proposal decimates support for New Hampshire SBDC

Without state funding, ‘we cannot exist,’ says executive director
Liz Gray

‘I cannot make up the difference from other sources,’ says SBDC Executive Director Liz Gray about the eventual elimination of funding in the governor’s proposed budget.

Funding for the New Hampshire Small Business Development Center has been cut out of Gov. Chris Sununu’s proposed budget, threatening the 36-year-old agency’s very existence.

“There is no way we can continue without state funding,” said Liz Gray, the agency’s executive director. “I cannot make up the difference from other sources. Without state support we cannot exist.”

The SBDC, headquartered at the UNH Peter T. Paul College of Business & Economics, provides a myriad of resources to small businesses and startups, conducts hundreds trainings – some 200 webinars last year – and recently conducted the largest small business survey in the state. But the agency is best known for the free one-on-one guidance and counseling it provides businesses trying to navigate everything from their first business plan and financing to getting though rough times (like the pandemic) and even establishing succession plans.

“If it wasn’t for the SBDC we wouldn’t be here,” said Robert Barmore, CEO of Therma-Hexx, a heating and coiling system manufacturer in Portsmouth, who credits the agency with helping him get off the ground and obtain federal and state funding to make it through the first months of the pandemic and, now, to help it rapidly expand.

Wendy Hunt, president and CEO of the Greater Merrimack-Souhegan Valley Chamber of Commerce – a fan of the agency for decades – said it really stepped it up during the pandemic.

“Businesses were absolutely blindsided. They couldn’t make payroll, couldn’t make rent. They couldn’t get through to their bank or the SBA, but when they contacted SBDC, they got through immediately,” Hunt said.

And for Elizabeth Curcio, co-owner of The White Apron a catering business in Dover that got government help while it was forced to delay larger weddings and backfilled with smaller events, the SBDC was a “godsend.”

“For us, it was kind of our lifeline to either continuing with the business and growing to be successful or just throwing in the towel,” she said.

State and federal support

Last year, the agency says it helped 7,000 New Hampshire businesses, assisting them in accessing $44 million in capital, preserving 1,300 jobs and resulting in an economic impact of $166 million.

During the current biennium, which ends June 30, the state provided the organization with $481,000, according to the budget document released last week, but Gray said that was a mistake, and the agency actually received $880,000 in state funding over those two years.

And, during the last year, it also received $1.28 million in CARES Act funds, which run out in September, just a few months after the next state budget year starts in July. The state and federal support enabled the agency to expand its staff and services during the pandemic crisis.

Gray said she knew she was in for substantial cut in this coming budget. Not only were all agencies supposed to cut 20% across the board, but she said she understood that the agency would only be getting $100,000 a year. But she was surprised when she saw the actual budget, which only showed the agency getting $50,000 in the first year of the biennium and no money for the second year.

However, more than state funds are in jeopardy, since half of the SBDC’s $1.5 million annual budget comes from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which requires a cash match from local sources. In addition, she said, that federal funding is also contingent on a cooperative agreement between the SBA and the state, which also works in conjunction with UNH, which provides mainly in-kind assistance, including staff salaries.

It would hard to see that partnership continue if the state cuts out all funding, Gray said.

The SBDC – which learned about the proposed cuts the day the governor’s proposed budget was released – has tried to reach out to the state Department of Business and Economic Affairs, which oversees it, but had not yet heard back over the long holiday weekend. NH Business Review also tried to contact BEA and the governor’s office Friday afternoon, and did not get a response by Tuesday morning’s deadline.

Gray said she hasn’t tried to reach out to the governor yet, but hopes to soon.

“I want the governor to celebrate our accomplishments. We’ve been here for 36 years, and I want us to be here for another 36 years to help support small businesses,” she said.

Gray said she and SBDC supporters are also starting to reach out to lawmakers, who ultimately much pass a state budget. That process is just beginning, but it will only end when the final document is signed by Governor Sununu.

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