Name a charity and Karen Conroy's small business, Fundraising for a Cause, has a product line to help people raise money for it.
Pink ribbon sweatbands for breast cancer awareness. Teal bangles for anti-bullying. Coffee mugs, bracelets, teddy bears -- 2,600 products in all.
After several years of strong growth, however, Conroy's company itself was in need of fundraising to help meet surging online demand. She had great credit, with revenues doubling annually, and had grown to 13 employees. Still, over the past couple of years, several big banks turned down her loan applications.
Since the onset of the recession, small businesses across the nation have faced the same problem: Banks have been reluctant to lend because they had written too many bad loans and regulators had demanded they impose stricter lending guidelines.
Growth and hiring suffered as a result.
Recently, however, Conroy found the financial lift she needed: She refinanced her original SBA loan and received a new $200,000 line of credit through USAmeriBank.
The money allowed her to double her warehouse space from 7,000 to 15,000 square feet, beef up inventory and hire up to six more people, including three immediately.
All three had been out of work, and one had been on food stamps.
"Oh, my gosh," Conroy said. "It's amazing how far this $200,000 can go."
Small-business lending, as Conroy bears witness, is on the comeback trail.
It's a message coming from community banks to megabanks like Bank of America, which is in the midst of recruiting 130 more bankers across Florida dedicated to knocking on the doors of mom-and-pop companies.
Longtime small-business adviser Jim Parrish has heard the "We're lending" refrain from banks before during this prolonged economic recovery -- but this time he believes it.
At USF's Small Business Development Center in Tampa, loans over the past three months have been running 20 to 30 percent above year-ago levels.
"We're seeing deals that six months to a year ago would have been denied that are now getting approved," said Parrish, the small-business center's assistant director.
Last month, the SBDC held financing fairs in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties for entrepreneurs to chat one-on-one with bankers. Each event drew more than 100 business owners and 15 to 20 bankers.
Construction loans are still soft, Parrish said, but there's percolating interest in just about every other type of lending: lines of credit, equipment loans, even capital for startup projects.
The lending comeback extends far beyond Tampa Bay, according to Cassius Butts, U.S. Small Business Administration regional administrator for an eight-state territory that includes Florida.
His region completed $3.5 billion in SBA loans in its just-ended fiscal year. That's far higher than the loan volume during the height of the credit freeze and second only to the record of nearly $4 billion set in fiscal 2011, a year that Butts said was deceptively high because of stimulus programs that helped prop up results.
"Overall, the economy is getting on track to where it needs to be, and that's without additional stimulus," he said. "It's really happening all over the place, from manufacturing to goods and services to importing/exporting, particularly here in Florida."
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