Solano, Napa, Sonoma small-business help centers shuffle resources as demand rises
Organizations that help small business ventures launch, survive and thrive in Solano, Napa and Sonoma counties recently have shuffled their responsibilities and resources. And this comes as they field a notable uptick in inquiries from aspiring entrepreneurs during the pandemic.
At the beginning of this year, Napa County was added to the Solano Small Business Development Center, and the Sonoma County center was taken under the wing of a new host organization.
Started in 1976, SBDCs are part of a nationwide program intended to connect entrepreneurs at no cost with advisers who can help them set up business systems, identify problems and seek financial assistance. Centers are partly funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration and partly by state agencies, which in California is the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development, also known as GO-Biz.
The former Napa-Sonoma SBDC had been hosted by Napa Valley College since 2011, led the last eight by Mary Cervantes, who recently retired. Northern California SBDC Network, which manages host contracts for the region’s dozen-plus centers, last year sought host proposals for Solano, Napa and Solano counties. Workforce Development Board of Solano County expanded its contract to include Napa County, and Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce won the host contract for Sonoma County.
“We’re very happy with the growth we’ve had in Solano for the past few years, and (NorCal SBDC) asked us to add Napa County to our responsibility,” said Tim Murrill, director of the newly formed Solano-Napa SBDC and head of the Solano center for three years. “There is a lot of continuity between the two counties. A lot of people in Solano live and work in Napa (County), and vice versa.”
In 2018, the Solano SBDC was working with 190 active client entrepreneurships, but that jumped to 1,350 last year and now around 1,700 with the addition of Napa County, Murrill said. In the past two years, the Solano center said it helped its clients hire 475 people, start 78 businesses, secure $63 million in new capital and grow sales by $17 million.
Hired to direct the new Sonoma SBDC was Louise Dawson. A year before the pandemic, she had launched a restaurant training program for the NorCal SBDC Network, drawing on her experience running owning two restaurants and a large catering company. She also had been operations director for Receivership Specialists, which would run businesses put under court control.
And it’s been a busy few months on the job, Dawson said. The center currently is getting 20 to 25 calls a day. It has 10 business advisers, including four who speak Spanish, including Dawson.
“I don’t know how Mary (Cervantes) did it when she was running Napa and Sonoma,” Dawson said. “Sonoma requires its own center, because it has a very robust program.”
Just looking at Sonoma County, the center said it helped over 1,128 clients, who added 359 new jobs and secured $32 million in capital.
The call volume also has gone up for the Solano-Napa SBDC this year, Murrill said. Last year, there were only about three new clients a week for the Solano center, and so far this year the average has been 10.
“In the last six months and especially since the beginning of this year, a lot of people want to start a business now,” Murrill said. “Many are trying to figure out if they want to go back to work. Many businesses are telling them they have to come back into the office.”
That’s one of the reasons why the addition of Napa County was attractive, he said. With it came seven business advisers under contract, including two who speak Spanish. The Solano center previously had only one Spanish speaker among its nearly two dozen advisers.
That’s key because the Solano-Napa SBDC now has picked up the contract from the state Office of the Small Business Advocate to offer $2,500 microgrants in Napa County as well as Solano. To reach the quarter of the counties’ population who are Hispanic, the center has signed microgrant marketing agreements with the Hispanic chambers of commerce for Solano and Napa counties.
To qualify for these grants, firms must have five or fewer employees and under $50,000 in annual revenue. The money is intended to help employers missed by previous rounds of federal and state pandemic relief such as SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program loans or economic impact disaster loans (EIDLs).
With the $500,000 allocated for Solano microgrants, the goal is to help up to 180 local businesses, Murrill said. The $175,000 for Napa is expected to help 56 businesses.
The Sonoma SBDC is working on its own grant program via the NorCal SBDC Network’s Dream Fund (norcalsbdc.org/dream). Intended $5,000 and $10,000 grants are for startups left out of pandemic relief programs because they didn’t have a full year of operations as of 2019. But before being able to apply via Lendistry, candidates must complete 11 hours of training over five weeks then one-on-one work with an adviser. The first round of classes start April 7.
NorCal SBDC plans to fund 1,000 grants across the region.
“But there’s a carveout for underserved areas,” Dawson said.
Sonoma County would qualify for that because of its extensive populations of farmworkers, Hispanics and other people of color, she said.
Solano-Napa SBDC also is bringing back Napa Valley College’s Youth Entrepreneurship Business Plan Competition, which had been held for over a decade before its two-year pandemic pause. Travis Credit Union is putting up the prize money for the best business plans brought forward by local high school and community college students. Local business people will be helping to judge the plans.
“We’re helping to bring the next generation of entrepreneurs into the fold,” Murrill said.
Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at email@example.com or 707-521-4256.