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Alaska Business Development Center Inc.: making its mark in the business community by helping Alaska businesses grow and prosper.

Understanding the unique needs of the Alaska business climate is not something that everyone just naturally gets. But, on the other hand, there are some organizations that understand the intricacies so well that they have not only made great strides throughout the state, but have drawn attention and support nationally as well.

Alaska Business Development Center Inc., ABDC as it is most commonly referred to, has definitely made its mark in the Alaska business community for the past 27 years. Michelle Kern, vice president, ABDC, says that the organization has "always been focused on Alaska business and rural Alaska." It is easy to say that ABD C can offer a helping hand to just about every business issue from IRS resolution, to disaster relief assistance to financial planning for commercial harvesters and small businesses throughout Alaska, even those that are located in hard-to-reach places. It is perhaps that ability to offer all of these services on a far-reaching basis that truly sets ABDC apart from the rest.

One of the biggest draws of ABDC is that its programs are not only vitally important and helpful, but they are also unique. In fact, ABDC prides itself in the fact that each of its programs is not a typical canned solution, but rather a well-thought-out and customized program that addresses local needs and issues. Kern describes this as a "hands-on approach." Their methodology works, and works well. Some of the programs offered by ABDC have been met with rave reviews and unprecedented success.

VTLP

One of the most successful programs to come out of ABDC is their Volunteer Tax & Loan Program, otherwise known as VTLR Gary Selk, president of ABDC, explains that what once started out as a pilot program 10 years ago has evolved into a nationally recognized and award-winning program that has changed the lives of thousands.

The program sends teams consisting of accounting students and a supervisor out to the rural communities and prepares tax returns at no cost to the locals.

ABDC partnered with the Alaska Division of Investments, Internal Revenue Service and the University of Alaska and created this program as a way to assist commercial harvesters to become compliant with the IRS and thus stave off the seizure of their Limited Entry Permits, which are vital requirements for commercial fishing. This meant that individual livelihoods were preserved. Prior to the VTLP, many jobs were in jeopardy of being lost as a direct result of the permit loss, which also causes a trickle-down effect. Selk says, "For the loss of every permit, there is a loss of not just one, but many jobs."

Funding for this program is generating through the program partners as well as through local banks, regional Native corporations, village corporations, Community Development Quota groups, local city offices, local small businesses, etc. Funding is received in all forms, in-kind and monetary, to include things such as workplaces, rides to and from the airstrips, or full funding of services for an entire region.

In addition to offering actual tax preparation, the program has added on yet another function; one that helps educate rural residents regarding things such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) Program through the IRS. In fact, Andre Chakine, program manager, ABDC, explains how a new and innovative program has been developed to even further enhance VTLP offerings.

He says, "In addition to the free tax preparation, we also have come up with an educational, yet fun, Bingo game that helps teach people about EITC and how it affects them." During the Bingo games, villagers not only get some knowledge in the complex realm of taxes, but they are also given refreshments and prizes, donated by sponsors, which are awarded just like in a traditional Bingo game.

Beyond the education and tax preparation, VTLP also allows ABDC to offer help in circumstances where legal assistance is needed. Through a LITC grant issued by the IRS, ABDC is able to offer referral services to clients, either low-income or English as a second language, who are in need of legal assistance with regards to various IRS issues.

This program is of true benefit to those in rural communities who would otherwise have no other option. Generating $3.4 million in tax refunds, last year alone, has been a boom to the communities themselves, which makes this program successful in more ways than one. Selk sums it up best when be says, "We benefit, taxpayers benefit and the communities benefit."

GETTING HELP TO WHERE IT IS NEEDED

When VTLP started, it served seven villages. Kern says, "Now, our teams travel to 75 villages throughout Alaska." One of the biggest benefits the program offers is its ability to travel to areas that many others just simply cannot get to.

One other component to the program is that ABDC offers a mail-in service in addition to its in-village services. This means that in areas that ABDC gets, as Selk says, "weathered out of" or villages that are just not logistically accessible, those residents can simply mail in their information to ABDC. The returns are then prepared in-house and sent back to the taxpayers.

Though quite costly, ABDC has been able to bring much needed, and appreciated, services to areas that are generally not otherwise serviced by such organizations. This is especially a welcome site to those dealing with IRS and tax issues. ABDC provides them with the services that they may not otherwise have access to.

OTHER INITIATIVES

In addition, ABDC has focused on providing much needed financial literacy training. In these sessions, villagers are taught about the importance of financial issues, such as creating and sticking to family budgets, setting up savings and checking accounts, and--tying back into VTLP--taxes. Many may not realize the need for such services, but Selk says, "There is a lot of need in the community for understanding basic financial issues."

One other growing topic for ABDC has been Individual Development Accounts (IDA) for low-income Alaskans. Kern compares these to traditional savings accounts, but with one added advantage. Entities involved in the program match individual contributions based on the individual program parameters. Currently, there are five IDAs operating in Alaska, of which four are pilot projects.

Kern says that, "Even though IDAs have been around for a while, they are relatively new to Alaska." In fact, this too can be tied back in to VTLP as one could set aside a portion of their tax refund for this type of an account, and attract a matching contribution.

MOVING FORWARD

ABDC continues to make strides in aiding Alaskans where help is needed, for all sizes of business. One of the biggest drivers in their continued success remains their personal approach. Selk says, "The key is that we are not doing work for people, but rather with them."

In the instance of business plan development, they would work in conjunction with the aspiring entrepreneur to develop the plan together. Selk explains that participants "need to be deeply involved in the process."

In fact, even this one process can be a livelihood saver in the long run. Selk mentions that via this hands-on approach, many have found that their plans were just not the right business move to make, therefore avoiding the risk on a venture that would not have been economically viable.

Though just one example, this too helps illustrate the deep dedication that ABDC has in the Alaska business community.
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Author:Stong-Michas, Jennifer
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Geographic Code:1U9AK
Date:May 1, 2006
Words:1237
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