SAN FERNANDO : Program to Assist Business Underused

Two months after it opened, a county-run office aimed at helping minority-owned businesses has all but fallen into disuse, and city officials are trying to revive interest.

When it first began operating in September, the branch office of the Minority Business Development Center inside the 1st American Bank branch on San Fernando Mission Boulevard was "packed solid," said the bank's assistant vice president, Edward Roybal. Now, he said, very few owners come in for its discounted counseling services.

"We got a lot of interest initially, but it kind of tapered down," said Josefina Aguilar, assistant to the city administrator for the city of San Fernando. "I think primarily it's because they don't know about it."

The county service provides an hour of free consulting, and charges about $10 per hour thereafter, Aguilar said. Such advice on accounting, marketing, planning and loan packaging normally can cost about $120 an hour, she said.

Before the county opened its branch office in San Fernando, business owners had to drive to downtown Los Angeles for the service, said Aguilar.

"It relieves a lot of expense and time," she said. "You waste half a day at least when you could be working in your shop."

Aguilar will mail notices about the service, along with a brief survey, to all businesses holding a city license. The survey will try to identify all minority- or women-owned businesses, data the city does not have now, Aguilar said.

Although San Fernando has a very high Latino population, it is unknown how many businesses are owned by minorities, said Bruce Cohen, executive vice president of the San Fernando Chamber of Commerce, which is assisting Aguilar in gathering data on businesses in the city.

The chamber also is pushing the consulting service.

"When you look at the area of services they provide, you just can't beat it," Cohen said of the service. For instance, devising a business plan can take 120 hours of consulting at a cost of more than $12,000. The county program could do it for a tenth of that cost, he said.

The chamber also supports two other services, including the Small Business Development Center run through the federal Small Business Administration, and SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), a program matching retired executives with business owners. Both operate through the chamber.

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