LA GRANDE — The Eastern Oregon University Small Business Development Center in 2020 helped businesses create 171 jobs, retain 375 more and accumulate more than $12 million in capital.

SBDC Director Greg Smith released the center data showing totals going back eight years. He said the numbers reflect much of the center’s work helping businesses obtain federal COVID-19 financial relief, including through the federal Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

But the numbers also show a big drop in how many clients the center served in 2020 compared to 2019.

The number of clients the La Grande-based SBDC served has fluctuated some since 2013, when it worked with 154 clients, but the total generally trends up. The center in 2017 served 192 clients, then in 2018 it served 227. The next year the total jumped to 352. Smith said that had much to do with EOU President Tom Insko’s support for expanding student entrepreneurship.

“The goal is to get into high school and let students know they can create jobs in Eastern Oregon,” Smith said. “In 2002, we were geared up to expand the program, but COVID hit,” which prompted Gov. Kate Brown to close schools statewide.

He also said some clients can skew the numbers.

The center serves Morrow County, where the Port of Morrow continues to thrive with businesses such as Amazon. A significant project there, Smith said, can make a spike in the center’s data.

Gina Perkins, the center’s assistant director, said the pandemic also meant fewer people were starting businesses in 2020, a trend that was statewide and not unique to Northeastern Oregon. But the center also served a much greater number of clients than the official stats reflect.

Typically, she explained, someone who contacts the center has to complete a client intake form to become an official client in the system. And 2020 was not typical. She estimated the center received perhaps 200 calls from people who were not official clients but “desperate business owners and entrepreneurs and needed immediate information, and we were not going to delay that by saying they needed to fill out the form.”

Plenty of those calls, for example, were just 15 minute conversations to help people apply for federal aid.

She also said the pandemic has made business winners and losers.

“There were some restaurants who were well positioned either because they had takeout options or were able to pivot to provide takeout options,” she said.

Other businesses also did well, such as greenhouses and plant nurseries. They experienced better sales, she said, perhaps because so many more people were having to stay home and opted to improve the beauty of their surroundings.

“So we have worked with a significant portion of clients who were looking to expand,” Perkins said, “but our cautionary tale to them was to be cautious because when we return to normal — whenever that might be — you could see a reduction in sales.”

That could be for various reasons, she said, including other businesses revving back up and creating more competition.

Businesses that closed during the pandemic, Perkins said, tended to already teeter on the cusp financially and had fewer resources and cash reserves to rely on.

Oregon has 19 small business development centers from the Oregon Coast to Ontario. Perkins said while the center in La Grande may be rural, it’s one of the busiest in the state and can tap the other centers for expertise and information. The services the center provides also are free.

Perkins also emphasized the center has found local businesses that could have qualified for the pandemic relief loans from Business Oregon or even the city of La Grande, except the businesses were not able to put other basic financial statements.

“That was really unfortunate, and we would like to tell business people to please contact us,” Perkins said. “Please, please, please. We can help them understand what those different financial statements are and who to interpret them. Without understanding where you are, without understanding cash flow, it’s difficult to be successful in good times, let alone when the storm hits.”

The U.S. Small Business Administration on Monday, Jan. 11, launched an online portal for eligible businesses to apply for Paycheck Protection Program loans as stipulated in the latest federal COVID-19 stimulus package. Perkins said that could give additional boost to some folks. She said there is a “significant increase to the amount of dollars available to restaurants, and they have been so particularly devastated.”

COVID-19, she said, is like an ongoing blizzard, with moments of letting up only to begin blowing again. The Eastern Oregon University Small Business Development Center, she said, is here to help business owners weather the blizzard.

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