Tribal business centers threatened by lack of funding

PABLO, Mont. - When Harvey Cole was 12, he started working for his dad's drywall business. He learned how to set drywall and to mud and tape. He learned to be a professional painter. He learned insulation.

Many years later, he is sole proprietor of his own drywall company. A member of the Little Shell Chippewa tribe, he battled the inherent Montana cowboy prejudice against Indian contractors. He weathered recessions, has taken advantage of building spurts and beat the bushes for work during dry spells.

It hasn't been easy.

But in the last six years, help has arrived from Tribal Business Information Centers on reservations and college campuses around the state.

Of the 17 centers around the country, seven are in Montana where tribal members gain access to grant and business loan information. They can take courses on business plan writing and attend workshops on everything from Quick Book accounting systems to contract procurement. Record-keeping, financial management, personnel management, market research, contract bidding and estimating - everything needed to run a business is taught through the individual centers.

Business assistants coach tribal business people about the different Small Business Administration programs for small, disadvantaged businesses. They help fill out applications and even check before they are submitted, so they are processed more quickly.

"Even if they just come in to make copies, they don't have to pay," says Salish-Kootenai business assistant Suzanne Kinkade. "They can just grab what they need or make a business call. They can use those business resources right here."

For people like Cole, the centers proved to provide a wealth of assistance. Cole has become 8-a certified with the SBA as a minority business and hub-zone certified. He attended SBA-sponsored Opportunity 2000 seminars to meet vendors and government agency people who can supply contract opportunities.

"I'm really trying, believe me," Cole says. "It's a struggle because I really don't have any money to work with. And a lot of commercial jobs pay out once a month.

"I'm trying to work around that and keep moving in a positive direction."

Larry Gallagher, a community builder with HUD, says the centers have been the main source of loan and business assistance for Native American-owned businesses.

"They've been doing an outstanding job. They're the places I go to help get things done. Several of them are involved with working HUD's rural housing and economic development program. And they are the main force behind starting and getting new businesses going on the reservations."

Despite their success, centers around the nation are threatened by lack of funding.

"It's really a shame," says Rhonda Whiting, national outreach coordinator for the SBA.

"The White House has pushed this forward and so has the SBA as one of their priorities of the new initiative. But with a Republican Congress ... we've have had such a limited budget across the board at SBA."

For six years Congress "zeroed" out the funding request. As a result, SBA personnel like Whiting, mandated to keep the centers running, scrambled for internal funds wherever they can find them.

"Initially we got money from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that went through the SBA," Whiting said.

The current internal SBA budget calls for $250,000 to be allocated for all seven centers in Montana this year. Whiting is "almost certain" the funding will come through.

Although not a lot split seven ways, center directors like Nancy Warneke are grateful for every little bit that comes their way.

Staff at all seven Montana centers learned to work as a team, sharing information and encouragement over the years. After six years, Warneke says the centers are making real inroads into the tribal communities.

"We've had so many good successes," she says. "When we started we had no Indian businesses. The banks were prejudiced, the whole thing.

"Now I've got 40 people in my class that want to start businesses. And there are 20 more that we turned away. Indian people are finally coming forward. We finally get some momentum with them. We've got directors that know what they are doing and have got some training."

So far, Warneke says, she has managed to obtain a grant through Health and Human Services that will guarantee that her center stays open this year. But that also means additional HHS work on top of the existing load.

"It just makes you irritated that you have to scramble all the time just to exist," Warneke says.