The past year brought a slow motion rebound for small businesses, but after an extended period of recession, cutbacks and stagnation, they'll take it.
Better yet, economic indicators and old-fashioned intuition indicate that the pace of recovery is picking up.
Consider: The Portland district office of the U.S. Small Business Administration reported a record loan year. The office supported $428.7 million in approved loans, up from $390 million in 2011. Many of the loans, about 26 percent, involved refinancing -- which no doubt allowed struggling businesses to find their footing.
In a news release, SBA Administrator Karen Mills said surging loan numbers nationally are a clear sign that entrepreneurs and lenders are regaining confidence.
"It means that the credit markets are increasingly willing to help small businesses establish themselves, grow and create new jobs for Americans," Mills said.
Make no mistake, small businesses are a big deal. Nationally, the country's estimated 28 million small businesses employ 60 million people -- half the private sector workforce, according to the SBA.
Key sectors of Oregon's economy are shaking off the cobwebs. The timber industry shows signs of improving and agriculture has recovered strongly the past few years. Both are deeply connected with hundreds of small businesses throughout the state -- from mills and marketers to parts suppliers, trucking companies and equipment dealers.
"There are signs that the worst of the recession is over," concluded a reported commissioned this fall by the Oregon Forest Resource Institute. "As the economy improves -- and provided there is a dependable supply of logs -- Oregon's forest sector is well positioned to increase its market share and create thousands of well-paying jobs."
Oregon farmers and ranchers, fresh off a record $5 billion in sales in 2011, had another strong year as commodity prices remained high and drought slammed competitors in the Midwest and southwest. Sales totals for 2012 have not yet been compiled.
Rather than produce vast quantities of mono-crops, the state's farmers continue to find and fill niches with high-value specialty crops.
Following years of negotiations, Oregon in 2012 became the first state permitted to export fresh blueberries to South Korea. By fall, blueberry exports approached the goal of 500,000 pounds. While well below what Oregon growers ship to Japan, opening the tough South Korean market was considered a major breakthrough.
Food processing shows some life, too. Turtle Island Foods, makers of Tofurky and other soy-based products, is nearing completion of a 33,000 square foot production facility in Hood River.
Key elements of Oregon's small business economy are tied to the national housing industry. Mills supply boards and sheets of plywood, of course, but the state's nursery industry -- the most valuable sector of Oregon agriculture -- also rises and fall with housing starts.
By that measure, look for improvement. J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co. nursery in Boring, one of the state's largest, reports that orders for landscaping trees and shrubs are up 10 percent over the same period last year.
The value of Oregon's greenhouse and nursery plant production topped more than $1 billion in 2005, but then the recession hit, the housing market crashed and demand for landscaping plummeted. By 2010, nursery production value had dropped nearly 40 percent, before beginning a comeback.
In another sign of housing-related improvement, a third-quarter survey by the American Society of Landscape Architects, 26 percent of respondents said their billable hours were "significantly higher" than during the same period in 2011.
One last indicator of bubbling entrepreneur sprit: Students continue to flock to classes and workshops at Portland Community College's Business Development Center.
Instructor Jackie Babicky Peterson predicted in an interview this past summer that the next wave of small business owners will include many retiring baby boomers. That huge cohort of Americans leaves the workplace financially stable, healthy and loaded with experience, she said. They're primed, in other words, to pursue what they've really wanted to do all these years.
Peterson said boomers will be joined young artists, writers and lone practitioners shut out of traditional jobs by the lingering recession.
"Entrepreneurship is very alive and well and bubbling in the United States of America," she concluded.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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