Every time a public official talks about jobs in Connecticut, somebody brings up dry cleaners.
So I stopped by Q-P Cleaners on Albany Avenue in Hartford to see what all the hubbub was about. I figured Seattle has software, Raleigh has bioscience and we have dry cleaners.
Chantha Ngy stood behind bulletproof glass, her 2-year-old granddaughter nearby. She's owned Q-P for 26 years, and she once got a loan from the Hartford Economic Development Corp. — straight from Samuel Hamilton, the executive director, in fact.
"I'll never forget what he gave me," Ngy said.
Ngy is just about able to pay her bills and stay open, she said. She has two employees, down from the heyday of five or six, and isn't looking for a loan. This isn't the time to develop the empty lot next door.
In the quarter-century that Hamilton has been in charge at HEDCo, his agency has done its job, keeping thousands of tiny businesses afloat with small loans they couldn't get from banks. Neighborhoods are better for it.
But does this mean lending to neighborhood micro-businesses like dry cleaners, tailors, florists and sandwich shops is a formula for job creation? Absolutely not. These are not the businesses creating jobs in this economy.
And yet, whether it's Gov. M. Jodi Rell or leaders in either party in the state legislature, or for that matter, President Barack Obama, they have or support "jobs bills" in the works designed to funnel loan money to mom-and-pop shops. Rell and the Senate Democrats both have proposals to borrow $20 million to create a loan pool for small business, which the state would lend directly.
Rell talked about a florist who couldn't buy enough flowers for Valentine's Day. The Democrats have visited a deli in Meriden, a tailor in Bristol and, true to form, a dry cleaner from West Hartford, who testified before the legislature's finance committee Monday afternoon.
Everyone seems to think these bills are urgent, and the focus is on the tiniest businesses. "It seems as though we've lost touch in regard to what banks used to do for people, that one-on-one contact," said Rep. Antonio Guerrera, D- Newington. "We applaud you," he said to Hamilton, "because as we all know, small business is the backbone of this economy."
Guerrera is wrong and he's not alone. Banks have not lost one-on-one contact. What they've lost is long lists of client companies that are good credit risks, worthy of loans. And mom-and-pop businesses are the backbone of neighborhoods — not the backbone of a $210 billion state economy.
The small businesses that are the backbone of this economy are the tech firms, machine shops, distribution companies and, yes, even law and accounting firms — those with dozens of workers, not two or three.
Helping mom and pop is fine policy. But what these shops need is customers, not questionable loans.
And what the state needs is long-term growth policies, not an expanded, feel-good role as micro-lender.
Sam Hamilton talked about the 5,000 jobs supported since 1984 by HEDCo and the broader Greater Hartford Business Development Center, which he also heads. He wants more money from the state, like everyone else.
He has notched a few big jobs successes. But to his credit, he and his colleagues are not selling HEDCo as a jobs agency. They're selling it as neighborhood development.
Don't look for success in the jobs numbers. Hear it in the voice of Chantha Ngy's granddaughter, Jala, as she brightens every customer's day with her friendly chatter, even from behind bulletproof glass.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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