By BOBBY MCMAHON
GREENBELT (Dec. 1, 2009) - If you ever need 500 chocolates with your wedding photo printed on them, George Bondon is the man to see.
Bondon, who is black, helps run Chocolate Graphics, a five-person company that sells pieces of chocolate with personalized logos and images embossed on them. He is looking to hire new staff to handle shipping and customer service and ramp up efforts to sell products via the Web.
To expand his operation, Bondon is considering seeking a business loan and thinks his company is an "ideal candidate." But with a widespread credit crunch making loans in short supply, he has to think for a moment when asked if he expects to be approved.
"That's a good question," Bondon eventually said.
At the launch of the Minority Business University initiative Tuesday, Bondon joined other minority and women business owners, as well as members of the O'Malley administration, to express frustration at their inability to secure loans. Officials and business leaders say these businesses already face a myriad of challenges, and the lack of loans inhibits their ability to grow.
Business owners at the event argued that in spite of promises to open up lending, banks have enacted stricter policies and tightened purse strings. This lack of access is widespread - during a roundtable discussion with small business leaders, Gov. Martin O'Malley asked whether companies were able to get any credit.
The answer was a seemingly unanimous chorus of "No" from around the room.
Bank loans are vital for minority and women business owners to grow and, for many, represent the only option for funding, said Luwanda Jenkins, special secretary of the Governor's Office of Minority Affairs.
Jenkins acknowledges that the loan problems facing minority and women business owners are shared by the larger small business community. Yet, because these entrepreneurs often do not have the connections and other resources necessary to launch a successful business, Jenkins said that they are at a disadvantage.
"People do business with people they know, and so breaking through sometimes is a challenge," Jenkins said. "So I think that women-owned firms and minority-owned firms are, to a large extent, playing catch up."
Minority and women business owners are also often hampered by what Dawn Jackson calls the "college student syndrome." Jackson, a small business owner and the president of the Women Business Owners of Prince George's County, said that just as college students cannot find a job without experience (and cannot get experience without a job), these business owners are caught between not qualifying for loans but needing funding to grow and be more attractive to lenders.
"How can I get business if I don't have the capital behind me?" Jackson said. "It's cyclical."
To address these issues and the larger small business credit crunch, the O'Malley administration has begun working with banks and members of Congress to find ways to loosen the tap and let the funding flow.
"When it came to (the federal stimulus package), they had a term "shovel-ready," O'Malley said, in brief remarks to the gathering. "They shouldn't give any of these banks any more money unless they're deal-ready."
O'Malley said this problem has to be resolved at the federal level. In particular, he argued that Congress should clarify financial regulations and reinvest some money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) into banks that are actually lending.
O'Malley voiced his support for the latter provision in a letter to the state Congressional delegation dated Nov. 5. In the letter, he said that this move "would both refocus the TARP to help Main Street and lead to more job creation."
Whatever the fix may be, O'Malley believes that action must be taken.
"We've got to figure this out because a lot of small businesses and family-owned businesses are dying on the vine as we wait for credit markets to rebound," O'Malley said.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.