Catherine Cote, director of Essential Learning Solutions, piecing together a puzzle with a student Nora Colpitt at the preschool in Livermore. Credit: Courtesy of Essential Learning Solutions

Catherine Cote says she doesn’t know what she would have done to get her business off the ground had it not been for help from a federal-state program that gives Maine small businesses a leg up to get started and keep running.

Cote, a former consultant, had always wanted to start a preschool for special-needs children with autism and intellectual disabilities. She went to her bank for a loan, and they referred her to the Small Business Development Center in Auburn to get help preparing the business plan and financial projections she would need to qualify for the $50,000 start-up loan.

“This agency is crucial to Maine small businesses,” said Cote, who is director of Essential Learning Solutions.

Cote now has two preschools, one in Livermore and one in Lisbon, with a total of 32 employees and 26 students.

More than 99 percent of companies in Maine are considered small businesses by the U.S. Small Business Administration. And more than half of all state employees work at small businesses. The percentages are similar nationally. And that means it is imperative for Congress to step up its support of start-ups, entrepreneurs and other small businesses, said U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, D-Maine.

Golden introduced a bill today to the U.S. House of Representatives Small Business Committee that could boost funding to the Small Business Development Center program and change some of the provisions governing it to make it easier for the centers to raise funds.

“Maine has a large concentration of small businesses, and the state’s economy is almost 100 percent driven by small businesses,” Golden said. “Congress has not given the Small Business Administration the resources they need to get out into the community.”

The centers are located nationwide, with 10 in Maine, including in Auburn, Portland and Bangor. They provide free advice and services for preparing business plans, helping to get funding, preparing three-year business projections and keeping small businesses on a growth path. They are funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration, the state of Maine and the University of Southern Maine.

“It’s not easy to start a business,” said Golden. “The centers’ impact is in support services and building capacity.”

Scott Shanaman, owner of Lost Valley, a ski area in Auburn, said the Small Business Development Center in Auburn helped him put together the financing for the purchase and resurrection of the troubled ski area, which he and his wife bought in 2016.

“We were looking to put together revenue and expense projections for the banks,” he said. “The Small Business Development Center knows what the lenders are looking for. They have templates to fill in and can advise us about adding a few percent here and taking off a few percent there.”

Shanaman got about $500,000 in loans from commercial banks, state agencies and federal funding.

He figures he saved several thousand dollars in accounting fees by using the free services of the center.

A couple years after he bought Lost Valley he again sought help from the center for capital improvements.

“Often I keep working with them once they are up and running,” said Jane Mickeriz of the Small Business Development Center in Auburn. She advised Cote and Shanaman.

Golden’s bill seeks to get the centers reauthorized, a key step in assuring a steady flow of federal funding in the future. The centers were last authorized in 2004, when appropriated funding was $135 million over three years. The program continued running without reauthorization, and the funding remained more or less stagnant.

Mark Delisle, state director for Maine’s Small Business Development Center program, said Golden’s bill to reauthorize the centers is an important step for the program nationally.

“It shows support for the program on a Congressional level,” he said.

Delisle said Golden’s simplified bill may have more of a chance of gaining bipartisan support than what he called a “more aggressive” bill introduced earlier this year in the senate and that still is under debate.

He said the Maine Small Business Development Centers have 1,500 more clients a year handled by one dozen professional advisors. More than 65 percent of those are start-up businesses and the rest are existing businesses.

Maine small businesses were able to access $38.5 million in 2018 to start or expand their businesses. More than 800 jobs were created or saved and 136 businesses were started.

Golden also is recommending that this year’s nationwide funding of $131 million be bumped up to $175 million for each fiscal year through 2023, though that funding would have to be approved by the U.S. House and Senate appropriations committees.

The U.S. House Small Business Committee passed Golden’s bill this morning. It now will be scheduled for a vote on the house floor, and then go to the senate.

Lori Valigra, investigative reporter for the environment, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...