CHARLESTOWN — Small business owners from Charlestown and the surrounding area needed to hear some good news, and the speakers at the Charlestown Economic Improvement Commission’s business forum did their best to give it to them. The commission’s chairman, Frank Glista, explained that this year, the focus of the meeting was on state programs and how business owners could take advantage of them.
“We’re just trying to get them educated that the state does offer an awful lot of opportunities for businesses, cities, rural areas, but businesses don’t know they’re available, and we’re trying to promote that so they can go on the Secretary of State’s website and see what they have to offer,” he said.
Lisa Konicki, executive director of the Westerly-Pawcatuck Chamber of Commerce, said that Westerly businesses are facing many of the same challenges as those in Charlestown.
“I find that in my role to get information out to the businesses that I serve, it’s critical for me to be at any one of these meetings, because I’m going to learn something new, and I can be a conduit to pass on that information to the business community,” she said.
After a welcome from local state representative, Democrat Donna Walsh, and remarks from Town Council President Thomas Gentz and Vice President Paula Andersen, the state officials, Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis and Charles Fogarty, director of the Department of Labor and Training, took the floor. Each had plenty to say about what the state is doing to help small businesses. VIBCO President Karl Wadensten, the single representative from the business community invited to speak, offered another perspective on the relationship between small businesses and the state.
Mollis said his department’s transition to online services allows business owners to launch new companies, renew permits and do almost everything else on the state’s Business Information Center without having to drive to Providence.
“Eight years ago, nine years ago, you’d have to drive the hour to do your renewal, to do your filing. Now, you can actually do it from your home, do it from your business, and spend time doing what you do best, and that’s running your business,” he said. “This is something we’ve been passionate about for the last seven years, to allow all of you to do as much as you can online.”
Forgarty talked about what the state was doing to streamline and even eliminate some of its more than 1,600 regulations, and how his department is helping small businesses with employment issues such as recruitment, job fairs, training and tax credits.
“Our goal under Governor Chafee has been to try and be as efficient as possible, improve customer service, look at streamlining regulations, and also, most importantly, focus on improving training programs,” he said.
After hearing what Fogarty had to say, Cheryl Dowdell, who worked in the insurance business and now serves on the Charlestown Parks and Recreation Commission, expressed a frustration felt by many area business owners: finding qualified employees. Dowdell said the state’s education system was at least partly to blame.
“There’s a gap between when we’re getting our students out of high school and then to get them so they’re properly trained to be able to hit the ground running so that they have the skills to be able to learn what it means to work for companies,” she said. “The difficult thing is, in our state right now, we need to be graduating students who can write complete sentences.”
Wadensten, of VIBCO, also serves as treasurer of the state Economic Development Commission, but he didn’t hold back in his remarks about state programs, treating the audience to a different approach. Wearing flamboyant pink pants and holding his trademark unlit cigar, Wadensten urged business owners to make sure the state heard their concerns and understood what they needed. Wadensten said that like other business owners, he didn’t have time to navigate the government bureaucracy in order to benefit from state programs, especially when it came to hiring workers.
“It’s a pain in the neck,” he said of the Department of Labor and Training. “Anybody in this room, when you need people and you find that quintessential person that fits the bill, are you going to call DOT and say ‘Can I get my $5,000?’ and have to fill out the forms and it takes a week or so for approval. I don’t have a week or so to wait, because I have customers that need the product...They’re working hard, but they need to hear from us. Government must understand the voice of the customer. We’re the customers.”
Frank Avedesian, who owns a construction company in Charlestown, said he was cautiously optimistic about what he had heard.
“I’m coming away with a little more hope maybe than I had before the morning. It’s encouraging to hear that maybe some of the barriers to running a successful business in Rhode Island are going to be worn down,” he said.
Tom Woisin, a landscape designer, was surprised to learn of all the efforts that the state was making to help small businesses. “It makes me feel very comfortable that I can actually have information, to reach out to the government when I have a problem or I need assistance,” he said.