Walla Walla Area Small Business Center to close

The operation, which has assisted local business owners since 1993, has fallen victim to the state's budget problems.

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WALLA WALLA -- The Walla Walla Area Small Business Center, the one-man operation that's assisted local entrepreneurs from startup through business survival challenges, is headed for closure as an ironic victim of the economy.

After more than 16 years of highly rated service and aid to more than 2,000 clients in four counties, Director Rich Monacelli said the office is expected to close this week because of a loss of funding.

Two of the center's funding sources, Washington State University and Walla Walla Community College, face budget cuts as a result of the state's more than $2.6 billion deficit.

"That lack of money trickles downhill," a disappointed Monacelli said.

The center's third funding source, the Port of Walla Walla, won't be able to make up the difference, said Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz.

"It's a very difficult time to be raising money for programs -- even programs that have value," Kuntz said.

Monacelli said the center, located at the Port of Walla Walla office at 310 A St., is expected to close Wednesday. A couple of projects recently taken on by the office, including the Self Employment Assistance Program and a Junior Achievement course in Burbank, may continue as planned into May but on a volunteer basis by Monacelli.

Whether the center will re-open when the economy recovers is unclear, as is the impact on local businesses in the meantime.

"It's valuable," said Bob Catsiff, owner of downtown Walla Walla toy store Inland Octopus. "I don't know how much of that is due just to Rich's personality and ability to help people. He points you in the right direction."

Catsiff sought out the service five years ago when he traded his corporate career for self-employment. Though he had a business background, he brought his proposal to Monacelli for a once-over.

"It validated everything I believed," Catsiff said.

Monacelli said he's worked with clients from all industries, including retail, construction, health services, transportation and hospitality.

The efforts have had a $32 million impact on the area over the life of the local office, he said. That's based on a U.S. Small Business Administration equation that considers the business's dollar investment in the community, as well as a value of $50,000 per job created. (That doesn't mean each job generates an income of $50,000 per year. It considers the ripple effect of the salary created and spending associated with the job.)

Monacelli said the return on investment for every dollar spent has been $111.

Equally valuable is the amount of money that hasn't been spent, Monacelli said. Hordes of people have cycled through his office enthusiastic about the idea of starting a business but clueless about what's involved in launching one.

"That's an economic benefit that there's really no way of tracking: How many people have gotten enough information to know that their idea was bad and that they would have lost their shirt?"

What is clear is that demand for the free business counseling, which spans Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield and Asotin counties, has been strong since Day 1, Monacelli said.

Clients showed up on the first day of operation in September 1993 to receive the services.

The program's objectives were twofold: provide one-on-one direct counseling to clients and develop and provide small-business workshops through the community college. The counseling was free. Workshops came with a fee.

An average of 175 people used the service each year, most commonly in search of the answer for one overriding business question: "How do you do it?"

Monacelli, who holds three degrees including a master's in business administration from Western Washington University, helped with questions about licensing and taxation. He helped clients establish business plans. He helped create a loan program that was replicated in six other communities. He helped debunk the lore that free grant money is waiting for all who apply.

"The mythology in the marketplace is there's government money to start up your business. It's never been true. It never will be true," he said.

He believes the need for the service is as strong today as it was 16 years ago. But what to do with everything in the meantime -- the client records, the business library, himself?

"I really haven't decided," he said. "I'm looking around this office. There's 16 years of accumulation here. When I leave, where does it go?

"I don't know what I want to do, and what about this valuable stuff? What about the programs and handouts that have been created over this time?"

Monacelli said he would consider continuing as a private consultant, but with a fee attached he knows the service wouldn't be utilized by as many people or have the same impact.

"I'll still be here, but I can no longer provide these services for free," he said. "That's been such an incredible benefit and incentive for people to use the program."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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