Efforts to assist Baldwin County businesses cope with oil spill expand


GULF SHORES, Alabama — Efforts are being expanded to help local businesses deal with the effects of the oil spill that have hit almost all aspects of the coastal economy, Baldwin County business leaders and officials said Thursday.

Support centers are open in Gulf Shores and Bayou La Batre to assist those businesses, they said.

“I don’t know of a business in Gulf Shores, Orange Beach or Fort Morgan that has not been affected by this in some manner,” Linda Whitlock, president of the Alabama Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce, said during an Press-Register editorial board meeting.

Donna Watts, president of the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce, said few affected businesses had received relief from BP PLC.

“I know that 72 percent of the claims filed in our community have not been paid,” Watts said.

Whitlock said that without additional help, many businesses could be gone before the start of the 2011 tourist season.

The Business Support Center opened in Gulf Shores in June is one local effort to support the injured economy, she said.

At a press conference at the Business Support Center on the coastal campus of Faulkner State Community College, Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft said the region cannot afford to lose those businesses.

“These are difficult times and there’s nothing more important to our communities — Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Foley — than the fabric of who we are, and that’s our small businesses,” Craft said. “We cannot be who we are without them. Their survival, their being part of our community and our economy, is vital to our survival.”

The Gulf Shores facility has assisted 150 businesses employing 1,326 people, Norman Schuchman, center manager, said at the news conference. He said services at the center are provided at no cost.

Whitlock said the center is part of a joint effort by both chambers, the cities of Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Foley, Baldwin County Economic Development Alliance and Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism.

After the spill began, local officials realized they could not rely only on the claims process, Whitlock said.

“We saw that we needed a Plan B,” she said. “We all realized that there were issues that we needed to address that BP would not be addressing for us, so we met and together we saw that we needed to do everything that we could on a united front to take care of our businesses in every possible way that we could with the resources that we have available to us.”

At the center, advisers from the Small Business Administration, Small Business Development Council and other agencies work with businesses to develop economic plans, Schuchman said.

“We talk to them about how to set it up. We look at the finances,” he said. “We look at the projections and we tell them the truth. They may have something that is marketable and worthwhile and we may tell them ‘we think you’re going in the wrong direction.'”

The centers will be open for at least a year, Bob Higgins, chairman of the Coastal Resiliency Coalition, said. He said the facilities could become a permanent part of the economic community to help local entrepreneurs find ways to continue to develop new ideas and expand.

The centers are funded through a federal grant to the Alabama Technology Network, Byron Dunn, director of the Bayou La Batre center, said at the Gulf Shores press conference.

The centers are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Faulkner State Gulf Shores campus and Bayou La Batre Community Center.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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