According to the latest data, the Rhode Island Small Business Development Center (RISBDC) has served more than 330 individual small businesses in the first quarter of 2021. That is more than a third of the clients served throughout all of 2020, which itself was a record year in terms of requests for support and specialized services. The Center, which has been based at the University of Rhode Island since 2014, has been providing assistance to the state’s small business community for close to 40 years.

In a press release, State Director Ed Huttenhower attributes the increase in volume to small businesses struggling to survive amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying economic downturn. While the Center has seen a steady increase in the number of clients served in the past seven years since moving to URI, 2020 saw a 60% increase over 2019. If requests for assistance in 2021 continue at the current pace, the Center will see another significant increase.

“This year has been very difficult for many Rhode Island small businesses – across all sectors,” says Huttenhower in a statement. “The RISBDC, which is primarily focused on helping small businesses to succeed and grow, has out of necessity had to shift its focus toward rescue and recovery, reinvention and building resiliency among our clients.”

Added Associate State Director Diane Fournaris, “Like so many of us, when the pandemic hit these businesses had to pivot on a dime and not all of them were prepared to do that – so initially we were doing a lot of work with clients, day to day, just to get them to be able to make those changes that would help ensure their survival.”

The Rhode Island Small Business Development Center continued with the following information in a press release on Friday;

One such business included Grapes & Grains, a fine wine and spirits retail establishment in Barrington. Knowing early on that social distancing would make it near impossible to service customers in his relatively small location, owner Matthew Amaral contacted the SBDC for counsel. Center consultants worked with Amaral to develop a questionnaire for his customers that helped to guide the launch of an e-commerce store that not only led to the survival of Grapes & Grains but to its growth, including the addition of several new employees.

At Grapes & Grains earlier in the pandemic, from left: RISBDC State Director Ed Huttenhower, store owner Matthew Amaral, and RISBDC Greater Newport Regional Director Paul Harden. (Beau Jones/URI Momentum)

“I reached out to RISBDC just to have a sounding board, to have an adviser,” Amaral said. “I was going to make these decisions, but I could have someone that I could discuss my ideas with on a more of a senior type level. Someone to coach and mentor me, to confirm that the decisions I was making was in the best interest of my staff, my community, my business. And the RISBDC did just that. The results indicated that customers would be happy with a model that included going with online orders and curbside pickup only.”          

According to the United States Small Business Administration (SBA), in 2020 small businesses – those with 500 employees or less – made up close to 99% of all Rhode Island businesses and supported more than 229,000 employees – over half of all those employed in the state. The vast majority of Rhode Island’s almost 104,000 small businesses were firms with fewer than 20 employees. These firms also make up the largest share of small business employment in the state.

Like Grapes & Grains, most of the Center’s clientele are smaller firms that have, on average, 4.3 employees. More than half identify as woman or minority-owned. In FY2019, for every state dollar appropriated to the Rhode Island Small Business Development Center, the center and its clients returned close to $62 through annual sales growth and investment capital, for a total of $21.6 million.

Between 2019 and 2020 the level of funding received by the center’s small business clients as a result of RISBDC assistance grew by $9 million – from $15.6 million to $24.6 million – in grants, loans and other capital investments. Some increased opportunities for relief came by way of the federal CARES Act. As a result of the CARES Act, the Center was also able to institute a number of new programs and enhanced services to help businesses cope with the impacts of the pandemic.

These programs and services, which are funded through the CARES Act through September 2021, include: providing specialized consulting services and one-on-one counseling for businesses in the restaurant and hospitality industry; working closely with the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island to provide assistance to businesses in the fisheries/seafood sector; increased educational programming and resources, including seminars and live weekly webinars; and increased outreach to the Spanish-speaking small business community, including consulting services and counseling, specialized educational programming such as the Qbits Financial Literacy program in Spanish, and collaboration and cross-promotion with the Puerto Rico SBDC to provide Spanish-language programming and sharing of educational resources.

Juan Lantigua and his wife, Wendy, had a hard time when the pandemic hit. Longtime clients of the RISBDC, the couple started their business, The Family Cake, out of their home in 2014. By 2018 they had moved the business out of their home and into a new location on Manton Avenue in Providence. But just over a year and a half later as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the business took a hit. “We never closed, but early on our sales went way down. We were unable to make payroll and had to send some people home. That was sad because our employees are like family,” said Lantigua. “These people are important.”

Juan and Wendy Lantigua, owners of The Family Cake, outside their shop on Manton Avenue in Providence. (Beau Jones/URI Momentum)

Luckily, the Center worked with Lantigua to make him aware of and apply for economic aid, as well as to complete paperwork that would later help him to recall his workers. As business began to pick back up, Lantigua was able to bring back his employees. Business is better than last year and the business has a promising future. He even won the SBA Minority-Owned Small Business Person of the Year Award.

In the first quarter of 2021 alone, RISBDC counselors have provided more than 1,200 hours of counseling to clients – exceeding the equivalent of 30 full-time work weeks. Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, this type of continued assistance will be critical to helping those small businesses that are so integral to the Rhode Island economy.

“It’s going to take months and years for some businesses and industries to recover. Especially in many of those sectors hardest hit such as childcare, restaurant and hospitality, and related industries – and in traditionally underserved communities – the effects of this economic crisis will be long felt,” said Huttenhower.

Looking ahead, the Center has also partnered with the Edward Lowe Foundation to launch the Level Up program, which provides in-depth, personalized growth-oriented consulting services aimed at helping CEOs of second-stage businesses hone their leadership skills, promote growth and take their businesses to the next level. The first cohort of 20 small businesses will complete the program sometime this summer, each with an action plan, and will continue to work with center staff moving forward.

“While we have had substantial success and been able to help a great many of our clients navigate this period, there are many small businesses in Rhode Island that may not make it back,” said Huttenhower. “It is how we respond and choose to invest from this point forward that will have the most significant impact on how our small business community and how our state economy is able to recover.”

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Ryan Belmore has been the Owner & Publisher of What's Up Newp since 2012. He also currently works for Mountain News, where he serves as Senior Editor - North America for OnTheSnow. He previously worked for the New England Patriots and American Cancer Society. He currently serves as Vice President of Fort Adams Trust and is a member of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers and North American Snowsports Journalists Association (NASJA).