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Fertile soil for small business: services help novice business people put all the pieces in place.

Gresham's growing corporate employers are essential to its economy.

Gresham, however, also knows that small businesses are its backbone. That's why the city helps its entrepreneurs get started and thrive.

Each year, more than 400 such businesses take advantage of the services of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Mount Hood Community College. The center's staff and local business people provide technical support about anything from market research to growth management and on-line communications. A computer lab offers self-paced training. Local banks support the SBDC's Small Business Management Program, a 10-month course that includes on-site consulting.

If the business is situated downtown, it gets a boost from the Gresham Downtown Development Association (GDDA). The association offers workshops tailored to the needs of business. It also oversees downtown promotions and marketing, infrastructure improvements, and parking. And it keeps downtown both pretty and safe.

Longtime residents Sunny and Judy Han know the SBDC's benefits. She had been a massage therapist; he had run restaurants in New York and Gresham.

Their plan: To open a restaurant serving healthful Chinese food in a vacant and vandalized downtown building.

Four years ago they began their research at the SBDC. "Don King of the SBDC

helped us get ahead of the game," Judy says. "We did a lot of homework there."

The rest of the ride to opening day was less than slick. But they got lots of help. "Catherine Comer of the GDDA rallied to help us," Judy recalls. "She'd say, 'Here's what you do to fix that . . .,' or 'Go to the mayor and ask her to help you move this along . . . .'"

Finally, one year ago, they opened the restaurant named Sunny Han's. Locals have come to love it for its array of quick, affordable and healthy kung pao chicken, chicken with garlic and black bean sauce, and vegetable noodles.

"We've done better than we'd anticipated," Judy relates. "We thought we'd serve 150 people per day for the first year or two. We already serve 500 per day. And we've increased our staff from seven to 28. Our niche is families and high school kids. The kids even wrote about us in their high school newspaper. Oh, and city workers call us 'the Gresham annex' because they eat here a lot."

That's heartening, of course. But Judy's also proud of two other successes: a plaque from the Gresham Downtown Development Association for the Hans' revitalization of the derelict building, and Judy's efforts to hire an ethnically diverse staff.

More, it's Gresham itself that rewards her. "The community is so supportive," she says. "We really like to be here."

Businesslike birds of a feather, Carol and Mahlon Bullis live near the boundary between Gresham and Portland. A year ago, they opened Wild Bird Lovers Supply in Gresham.

Neither was a biz wiz; both worked in quality inspection for the U.S. government. Both also are bird watchers. And when their toddler was born, they began to look for a business Carol could run.

They chose their hobby. And they chose Gresham.

"When we were deciding where to locate, we saw a piece about Gresham on TV," Carol remembers. "Catherine Comer of the Gresham Downtown Development Association was discussing the city's goals to bring in new businesses and also keep downtown's historic feel. It looked like a relaxed, comfortable place to shop, with a family atmosphere. Also, there was nothing in Gresham to support our bird watching interest."

Bingo.

But not so fast. Carol says they were so inexperienced they didn't even know how to get a business license. Like the Hans, they got great help from the SBDC.

"And the GDDA has been really supportive," Carol notes. "During the first week after we opened, all the downtown merchants came in and introduced themselves. They all have an open door policy."

And the results? "After just one year, our bookkeeper says we're meeting benchmarks most don't meet until year two or three," Carol says. "And customers are coming from as far away as Bend and Ashland."

Focus on Success

Nancy Smith and Pete Slaney photograph wildlife and wilderness to help save the environment.

Four years ago, they wanted to expand their full-service photographic, graphic design and printing company, Focus on Photography & Design in Troutdale.

So they enrolled in the 10-month "Small Business Management" class at the Small Business Development Center. For just $300, they got classroom instruction from attorneys, communications specialists and accountants. But more, they got on-site assistance to refine their business plan, promotional materials and a proposal for a bank loan (which they got). They also tested new computer programs at the center before deciding which to buy.

As a result, according to Peter, they've cut production time, increased services and are more competitive.

They plan to develop more materials and interactive wildlife programs for schools. And they'll take the SBDC's new, advanced class to fine-tune marketing and distribution.

Peter notes one additional plus: "As a husband and wife team, it's nice to have someone outside the marriage helping you."

Perfecting the Plan

Sandwiched between Portland and the natural splendors to the east, Gresham has grown, and will continue to. With a projected 2% annual growth rate, the population could double by the year 2010, from 74,000 today to as much as 150,000.

Rather than watch their city sprawl, which it was starting to do, Gresham residents in 1991 launched "Envision Gresham." During this innovative year-long planning session, the whole city decided its future. It held workshops and coloring contests for kids, and did mailings and surveys.

It considered three possibilities: growth centered on downtown and transit, multiple growth centers, or uncontained sprawl. They chose downtown-centered growth. Now they're integrating it with the city's master plan.

As a result, the city has cut commuter traffic leaving Gresham, boosted transit ridership by reducing parking spaces, disallowed big shopping malls and encouraged compact and marketable development. It's also brightened its downtown.

Says Gresham Mayor Gussie McRobert, "If we don't plan and increase our densities, we'll end up looking like Virginia around Washington, D.C. That absolutely won't happen to us!"
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Publication:Oregon Business
Date:Aug 1, 1994
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