Business advice offered during wait for bridge

ADDISON COUNTY — Businesses affected by the closure and subsequent demolition of the Champlain Bridge are now being offered free consulting through the Vermont Small Business Development Center (VtSBDC).
Sarah Kearns, a VtSBDC business adviser, will offer her services to businesses of any type until the end of 2011 — even after the replacement bridge is scheduled to open in the fall of next year.   
“I can help businesses look at any aspect of what they do,” she said. “Specifically with the bridge, I want to help businesses get through this time, but I also want to help them plan for the future.”
A wide variety of businesses have suffered since the Champlain Bridge was closed due to safety concerns in October 2009, and Kearns hopes to work with the full extent of affected businesses — including farms, gas stations, manufacturing businesses and restaurants.
The bridge, which was demolished in December 2009, connected Addison to Crown Point, N.Y., and was often used by commuters and businesses transporting goods.   
Kearns will advise affected business owners on issues including cost control, marketing and strategic planning. She will also help businesses prepare loan requests from either banks or the Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC).
In April, the Legislature earmarked $800,000 in federal stimulus money for the ACEDC to offer low- or no-interest loans to businesses that can demonstrate that they have suffered losses from the bridge closure.
Robin Scheu, the executive director of ACEDC, said her office has already approved four loans, each for the maximum amount of $25,000. The loans have no principal or interest payments due for the first two years, and have maximum terms of 10 years and 3 percent interest. 
“People who are applying need to demonstrate that they have either had increased expenses or increased losses because of the bridge,” she said. “In the cases that we have approved, (this) has been very clear. For some of them it was like the faucet was turned off.”
Unlike the ACEDC loans, businesses can qualify for Kearns’ consulting simply by declaring that they have been affected by the bridge closure, and do not need to provide documentation showing that they have suffered losses.
Kearns is operating through the VtSBDC, which provides businesses with advising services throughout the state. The state allocated VtSBDC $50,000 in grant money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund Kearns’ counseling.
Steve Paddock, the VtSBDC area business adviser for Addison County, explained that the center’s approach is not to apply set formulas to the businesses they help, but instead to “help (the businesses) find answers that are right for them.”
Paddock also stressed that Kearns will help businesses with long-term planning.
Kearns received an MBA from Babson College in 2001 and has experience in both the public and private sectors — she’s worked for a variety of start-ups in industries spanning from technology to chocolate distribution.
“It’s hard for that busy person who is dealing with employees, customers, vendors and the logistics of everything to step back and say where they want to be in three years,” Paddock said. “Sarah has the ability and knowledge to help them go about that in an orderly way.”
But businesses will have to wait over a year before the new bridge replaces the temporary ferry service that is now offered. The ferry has helped businesses a good deal. Before the service, options for crossing the lake included taking a 40-mile detour and taking the Ticonderoga ferry or an 80-mile detour through Port Henry, N.Y.
Although the ferry service runs every 30 minutes from each side, it still does not offer a full replacement for the bridge, according to Scheu.
“Things aren’t back to the way they were (as a result of the ferry service), but they’re getting a lot better,” she said.
She gave the example of a farmer who still has to transport equipment along the 80-mile detour because it is too large to fit on the ferry.
There aren’t precise figures on the economic impact the bridge closure has had on local businesses, but Scheu estimates the number is in the millions of dollars.
The bridge closure has affected more than the local economy; Scheu gave the examples of people who rented campsites to be near work and children who moved in with their grandparents after the bridge was deemed unsafe. State officials also last month closed the Chimney Point State Historic Site in Addison for the season because of its proximity to construction on the new bridge.
But the repercussions of the closure have also been felt well beyond Addison. Porter Medical Center in Middlebury was especially affected because a large number of its employees live in New York and commute to Vermont. It received a $40,000 legislative appropriation.
Kearns hopes to work with businesses owners throughout an extended geographical area, many of whom she says have felt a large amount of pressure over the past few months. 
“There’s no question that business owners work harder than anyone on planet earth,” Kearns said. “So I think I’m offering some stress reduction. I also think that the big benefit is that you’re setting yourself up for the future. Because the bridge will reopen.”
For information on VtSBDC’s free-of-charge consulting service, businesses can call 772-0623 or 388-7953, and also email [email protected].
Businesses can call 388-7953 for information regarding ACEDC’s low-interest loans or email [email protected]
Reporter George Altshuler is at [email protected].

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